The Art of Lament

Note: The title for this post comes directly from an excellent video which was produced by my good friend Pavel Adámek. Check out the video here.

Something that has been weighing heavily on my mind in the last week or so is the idea of Christian lament. How should Christians go about the grieving, mourning or lamenting process? I believe this is an issue the church has failed to address for a long time, and one that we must speak out on.  Why is it that the vast majority of “Christian music” is joyful or celebratory in tone? This is not intended to be a critique of Christian music, but music should represent reality. Christian music falls short of this in many ways. Why — when up to two-thirds of the Psalms are laments — can we only express joy to God, at least if we want to use the language provided to us by contemporary culture?

Before I go into the process or means of lament, I want to spend some time discussing it from a biblical standpoint. As I mentioned earlier, many of the Psalms are in the form of lament. Even beyond this though, Hannah wept bitterly, Naomi mourned the outcome of her choices, David wept and fasted over his sin, with the hope that his child might not die and Jesus mourned the death of his friend Lazarus. There are examples of individuals expressing sorrow or displeasure over sin, circumstances, events and pain. Biblically speaking, it is clear that we are intended to express our true emotions to God, not to simply mouth words of joy and happiness because we hear them from everyone else.

I believe there is a tremendous disconnect between what is biblical in the regard and the reality of the modern church. Just out of my own personal experience, I know that the church doesn’t really have a language of lament, or a support system for grief. Do a Google search for “biblical grieving”, or “biblical mourning”. You’ll find lots of topical results from scripture, usually verses from narrative passages that describe the mourning process a character went through. You’ll also find articles about how to “get over” grief, or how to move from it back into the “joy of the Lord”.

When I was a senior in high school, my dear friend Lee died. It was sudden, unexpected and incredibly painful. It tore me apart, but I didn’t have any way to express it. Thinking back on it now, I believe this is at least partly the result of growing up with a large number of brothers, which unfortunately created some issues of  misconceived machismo. There was an unspoken assumption that crying was a sign of weakness, so naturally I avoided it at all costs. This has bled into my teen and adult years, and to this day I struggle to show emotion. I may feel it strongly, but I probably won’t show it. This is exactly what happened when Lee died. I was sad, but felt I couldn’t cry. What I heard instead was that I should rejoice for the time I’d had with Lee, that I’d see him again. These things are true, but in the moment I didn’t need or want to hear them. I wanted to grieve, but what I heard from the church was that I needed to hurry up and finish being sad so I could praise God again.

Please hear me when I say that you can praise God by grieving or lamenting.

This may even be the most pure and selfless way to praise God. As one of my professors here at Moody, Dr. Winfred Neely explained, failure to accurately express your emotions to God is deceptive, and only hurts you. God knows the depths of our hearts. He doesn’t need us to vocalize our feelings. However, when we truthfully express how we feel to God, we open ourselves to his healing power. To be clear, this is healing from sin, not from whatever emotion we feel. God created us as emotional beings! Emotions are good and natural, and God does not require us to be within a certain range of emotions when we draw near to him.

What can we do about this? How can the church rally around those who mourn, giving them both the space and the support they need to lament properly? We must first understand the process of lamenting, and the biblical rationale for it. I’ve barely touched the surface here, but there are materials on the subject available (See herehere and here for a couple of examples). With this better understanding, we must come alongside those who lament, clearly showing our commitment to them, without seeking to change how they feel. They don’t need to be cheered up, they don’t need to get over it. The process of lamenting takes time! We must always seek the counsel of the Lord and humbly acknowledge our dependence on him as we seek to support people in difficult situations. It can be (and usually is) really hard to take a seemingly passive role while someone we love struggles through a difficult time. I struggle to remember that it’s not a problem to fix. This must be our mindset however, as we approach this difficult subject with grace, humility and the love of Christ.

PS. There is some great music out there that is more appropriate for lament. Listen to some of my favorite songs for this here, here, here, here, here and here.

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Lament

  1. They at least started the process correctly: “When Job’s three friends … heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:11-13)

  2. Yes, I agree. I also believe they finished well, though what happened in between was terrible. There is an aspect of blame shifting evident throughout their discourse. They try to blame Job for his own suffering, basically saying that it had to have been one of his sins that brought it upon him. We know that’s not true, but from their perspective it’s the only thing that made sense. The end of the book is entirely God’s response to Job and his friends, and we see from Job 42 that they had sinned, but they did what God told them to and “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11). So, I’d say they did indeed start correctly, and they finished correctly. They just goofed up big time in between.

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