The Art of Lament

Note: I published a version of this post a year ago. Writing and publishing it then was really helpful for me as I worked through some major grief. Since I published it though, I have experienced the loss of my grandfather and a number of other smaller, but still difficult things, all of which caused me grief and sorrow. God has worked in me tremendously, and I believe will be helpful to publish this reworked version of last year’s post.

Something that has been weighing heavily on my mind for the last year is the idea of Christian lament. How should Christians go about the grieving, mourning or lamenting process? Beyond this, how must we handle depression or times of intense sadness? I believe these are issues the church has failed to address for a long time, and ones that we must speak out on. My reasons for believing this are varied, but essentially they come down to a question of the function of the Church. If we believe (as the bible teaches) that the Church is to be a place where we can both reach a lost world for Christ and also build up Christians in their knowledge of God, helping them mature, we must be prepared to speak out on real-world issues. 

Before I go into the process or means of lament, I want to spend some time discussing it from a biblical standpoint. First, many of the Psalms are in the form of lament. Beyond this, 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. These are examples of individuals expressing sorrow or displeasure over sin, circumstances, events and pain. This is not to say that you must exhibit these emotions to be biblical, but rather to illustrate that these are real people with real issues, and that they experienced intense sorrow and revealed their sorrow to those around them.

I believe there is a tremendous disconnect between what is biblical in this regard and the reality of the modern church. Just in 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 had no way to express how I felt, no language of lament.  Thinking back on it now, I believe this is at least partly the result of growing up with a large number of brothers, which created some issues of  misconceived machismo. There was an unspoken assumption that crying was a sign of weakness, so 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 a professor here at Moody explained in a class, failure to accurately express your emotions to God is deceptive, and only hurts you. God knows the depths of our hearts, and won’t be offended or shocked by anything we say to him. He doesn’t need us to vocalize our feelings, but 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.

A similar idea should govern times of depression or intense sadness, which are a common part of the lives of many Christians. What I am referring to is what some call the dark night of the soul, what others call a time of spiritual dryness. It can be manifested in many ways, but likely the most common is a feeling of spiritual numbness or simply intense sorrow for no apparent reason. This can be absolutely toxic for relationships and spiritual growth, but a person going through it often has no idea what precipitated it or how to grow closer to God through it, or even how to escape it.

In my personal experience, it is all too common for this to strike as part of the aftermath of a spiritual victory or high point. Any pastor can tell you that the day after they preach is the hardest day of the week for them. This is part of a normal cycle of human emotions, but it can swing too far, leaving the person experiencing it deep in depression for no apparent reason. In these times, the absolute last thing Christians should do is tell the sufferer to get over it, or try to use their material blessings as a way to cheer them up. That’s not the issue, and if they could just get over it, they would.

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? How can we understand the struggle of a Christian who experiences intense sorrow? 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 being with them and supporting them, without self-seeking motives or an idea of helping them “get over it”. 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. Music has always had a huge place in helping me grow through these times of sorrow. I’ve created a Spotify playlist here with some of the music that has been particularly helpful for me. I’ll update it from time to time.

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

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