Life does not consist of nothing but warm sunny days and peaceful ease. Suffering, in some form, affects us all, causing us to cry out in pain or scream that life is unfair. Many things—the loss of a spouse through death, divorce, or dementia, inability to find a marriage partner or conceive a child, failure to find or keep a job, psychological or sexual abuse, physical pain, depression, etc.—rob us of the joy we desire. Equally they impact our relationship with God, particularly with regard to worship. How can we worship God in and through our suffering? If worship is all about celebration and praising the Lord for all the good things he has done, how can I approach him in my grief and pain? Do I have to “fake it” and pretend that things are OK when they’re not? Do I need to quit attending Christian activities until I can get it together again and I feel like praising God?
These questions show how difficult it is for many of us to come to God in worship in the midst of personal suffering. They also show that our understanding of worship is often inadequate. Worship is not merely a matter of singing from a joyful heart about the wonders of who God is and the marvelous things he has done. At its most basic, worship—as it is developed in the Bible—consists of bowing down before God in submission to his will, fearing him for his majesty and power, and serving him in our daily lives whether by specific acts of worship or by simply doing that which pleases God. As our relationship with God encompasses all of life, it is possible, indeed essential, that we learn how to worship God through the rough times when mumbling, “Praise the Lord, anyway,” simply won’t do. Thankfully the Bible not only alerts us that we can worship in times of pain, it also helps us along the way by telling stories of people who called out to God in their need and preserving literary forms designed to be used by those bringing laments to God. It thus provides models and materials to be used by those who grieve or otherwise experience trouble.
The Bible nowhere disguises the reality that life can be difficult. In the beginning Adam’s sin forced him from the blissful garden to face an existence of painful, sweaty toil in order to have food to eat. His son Cain, after killing his brother Abel, was driven from the land and forced to wander from place to place as the ground refused to yield its crops to him. In these examples, suffering came as the result of one’s sin. But this is not always so. Noah, the righteous and blameless man, was required to build an ark in order to rescue his family and the animals of the world from the great depravity of other people in his time. Though chosen by God, Abraham and Sarah lived a nomadic existence and felt the pain and shame of not being able to bear a son until old age. Concluding that Joseph had been torn apart by wild animals, Jacob refused to be comforted and cried out that he would descend to Sheol in mourning for his son. Hannah’s inability to bear a child, compounded by the provocation of her rival, prompted her to cry out to God that he might give her a son. David experienced the sting of sin when his adultery with Bathsheba was uncovered and when the child she bore died despite his fervent prayers. Later in life he had other reasons for calling out to God due to personal attacks from his associates and family members. Many of the writing prophets were caught up in the sin of their people to the extent that they were carried off into exile, or, in the case of Jeremiah, to Egypt.
These Old Testament stories are but a small sample of the Bible’s instruction on how people respond to difficulties in life. Far from exhausting the biblical testimony about trouble and lamentation, they are supplemented by numerous New Testament accounts of broken people seeking Jesus for healing and of the apostles suffering for their testimony that Jesus was the Christ. According to Paul, the apostles faced pressures that were so far beyond their ability to cope that they despaired of life (2 Cor 1:8; cf. Rom 9:2). As he saw it, this situation had a positive angle that forced them not to rely upon themselves but turn to the God who answered their prayers and the prayers of the churches they founded.
Not even Jesus was preserved from life’s pressures and trials. Indeed, the “man of sorrows” (Isa 53:3) faced rejection throughout his earthly ministry and ultimately suffered the cruelest of deaths after his agonizing vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane during which he informed his closest disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34). As he hung on the cross Jesus cried out to the Father, not with praise, but with words drawn from one of the lament psalms: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? . . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; cf. Ps 22:1). His final words were likewise drawn from a psalm of lament: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46; cf. Ps 31:5). The hour in which Jesus performed his greatest act of worship was marked by sorrow, suffering, and prayers of lamentation to God.
That both testaments frequently acknowledge that people face pain and distress and that they bring them before God through prayer in open worship contrasts greatly with the way many Christians face it today. While everyone suffers grief and disappointment, many apparently believe that followers of Jesus should only express joy and praise. This common reaction is deceptive, as it downplays our personal experience of pain and contradicts the biblical testimony of how the saints of old and the Christ responded to their troubles. As Brueggemann has pointed out, in the modern church “we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity.” This may be because we have been inordinately influenced by a success driven and forward looking culture that thinks all negatives can and should be overcome. Or it may spring from a misplaced conviction that followers of Jesus should experience no problems in life. However, where our experience and the testimony of Scripture differ from our practice, we must ask some penetrating questions that will help us get back on track. To help us find our way to worship God in the midst of suffering, loss, and disappointment, this paper addresses biblical teaching about the nature and use of lament, particularly in the psalms of lament.
What is a lament?
As used in the Bible, a lament can be an action associated with mourning (such as wearing sackcloth or beating one’s breast) or a poetic or musical composition (e.g., a dirge) that would be recited or sung during a period of mourning. In Old and New Testament times laments were practiced by all people in society and were commonly led by the king and prophets, both of whom might write the dirges that would be sung (2 Sam 1:17–27; 3:33–34; 2 Chron 35:25). Any situation that causes a person or group to mourn can prompt a lament. Even potential tragedies can be seen as a reason to bring a lament to God. Although the Hebrew words are immediately associated with the actions of lament, the composition is more important for our purposes as we study the biblical texts. The biblical laments, however, exist to guide us through the actions.
The most accessible biblical resource for those facing difficulties is the psalms of lament. The psalmists experienced all the seasons of life. They knew what it is to rejoice and they knew what it is to grieve. In every experience they would turn to God, let him know what they felt, and ask him to help them through. No matter that suffering was God’s punishment for personal sin or the result of someone else’s sin, the psalmists acknowledged that life can be extremely difficult and that it is right for a believer to bring their pain, confusion, and frustration to God. Their psalms of lament provide models of the right way to complain to God. Lest someone think that these psalms were a rarity, it is commonly noted that around sixty of the 150 biblical psalms are laments, making it the largest grouping of psalms by genre. Moberly states,
Such predominance of laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but rather are central to the life of faith…. Moreover they show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith, something to be outgrown or put behind one, but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith.
Since more than one-third of all the psalms fall into this category, we are presented with a tremendous challenge. Why would God place such an emphasis on lament in the Bible? Could it be that they were included simply because Israel specially needed this type of psalm due to their regular persecution and because they frequently fell under God’s wrath due to sin? What is true for the Old Covenant community is equally true for the church. The New Testament testifies that Jesus, his apostles, and the early church faced major opposition and persecution. As Jesus told his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). He similarly informed them that, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). And whether trouble comes from without or within, lament, as a God-given resource, empowers us to present our needs to God and ask him to resolve our difficulties and bring us back to praise.
One other thing we should learn from the amount of space given in the Bible to lamentation is that, “The lament itself is a form of worship.” While many will find this contrary to everything they have heard about worship, the prominent place lament has in biblical narrative and its key position in the Psalter make it clear that saints have long considered lament to be an important means of worshipping God in difficult times. It is our way of entreating him for mercy in times of difficulty. It is our means of reassessing our situation in light of God’s power and grace. It is how we should approach God with honesty and hope that he will meet us in our pain, sympathize with us in our confusion, and enable us to praise him again. Note that the connection between lament and worship gives us grounds for reassessing our understanding of what worship is and does. Far from being limited to singing songs of praise, worship takes hold of all of life as we live it out in humble service before God.
The psalms of lament are, from an emotional point of view, the opposite of a hymn of praise, as they are experienced as “psalms in a minor key” that provide words for those in trouble or despair so that they can raise their complaints and petitions to God. Though commonly divided into individual psalms of lament and corporate psalms of lament, there is an additional distinction between them, as some locate the source of difficulty in one’s circumstances and seek God’s deliverance while others identify God as the one who brings the trouble and entreat him to withhold his hand. No matter what circumstances prompted their composition, these psalms acknowledge that life can be most troublesome and that the affairs of life often make it difficult if not impossible for God’s people to express joy and sing his praises. Laments are therefore primarily intended to help people present their needs to God and ask him to resolve their difficulties and bring them back to praise.
Lament psalms are prayers addressed to God as the one who understands our difficulties and who is entreated to intervene. By praying these psalms we are directed to identify the source of pain and to look beyond it as God leads us through our trials and heartaches and restores our ability to praise. They thus become models to follow, guides that lead us from pain to praise, from fear to faith. Indeed, as the believing community acknowledges that life is fraught with danger and disorder, these prayers become “an act of bold faith.” No matter what brings our difficulties, these prayers give us the opportunity to express tremendous confidence in God. The way the laments restore us to praise anchors them in communal worship, for it is only in the presence of others that one can rightly praise God. Though most Christian worship is bereft of lamentation, we would benefit from its rediscovery.
Psalms of lament make it clear that pain and difficulties come from many sources. Enemies (whether military or political) threaten (Pss 13:2; 22:6–8, 12–13, 16–18, 20–21; 44:10–16), rulers abuse their authority (Ps 58:1–2), illness weakens, and death seems imminent (Pss 38; 41; 88). Even so, lament psalms do not identify the enemies or illnesses with any detail. In this they contrast greatly from laments found in the historical books of the Bible that expressly state the circumstances in which they were uttered (e.g., Josh 7:7–9; Judg 21:3). Even so, their lack of specificity greatly helps those who use the psalms as they can be adopted to suit many different circumstances. This allows modern worshippers to read their problems into the psalm as they use it for prayer.
The psalms of lament—particularly the communal laments—also benefit worshippers by showing them that the psalmists could feel that God was absent. They express their experience that God has rejected (Pss 43:2; 44:9), abandoned (Lam 2:7), or forgotten (Ps 42:9) them. At times it seems that he has hidden his face (Pss 13:1; 44:24) or fallen asleep (Ps 44:23). God’s perceived failure to help prompts them to ask the questions “Why?” and “How long?” “Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps 10:1). “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps 74:1). By asking “Why?” the psalmist demonstrates his feelings that God is in some way responsible for his trouble. Could it be that God doesn’t care about his plight? Is he impotent to deal with the problem? Or is he punishing the lamenter for some reason?
The same thing happens when the psalmist asks “How long?” The difference is that this question “implies distress of some duration.” The difficulties keep going on and on. In spite of the passing of time, it seems that God will do nothing to deal with the problems his people face. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Ps 13:1–2). When trouble and grief continue without end, it is imperative that one confesses his feelings of abandonment and unease to God and then expresses his trust that, despite his circumstances or feelings, God will surely intervene (Ps 13:5–6).
The place of lament in the Psalter indicates that God is interested in pain as much as he is in joy. This should give us hope to approach him for help during a time of difficulty. Even more, we should be encouraged that even as God has helped people in the past he will help us now. The words written by the psalmists encourage us that we too can dare to approach God in anger, fear, and doubt because that is how we feel at the time even if it does not reflect our reasoned theological beliefs. One who comes to God in grief or pain does not have to pretend everything is alright or come up with the “right words” that God will accept. Rather, they can know that they can trust God to accept their feelings even when they don’t know what to say. And even though we may not receive a speedy answer to our questions, the fact that we address God as the one who hears and will answer indicates that the light of faith has already begun to penetrate the clouds of despair.
Even so, simply praying a psalm of lament does not ensure an instant solution to all problems so that God’s people will only experience praise. Those who have lost a loved one cannot, by prayer, bring them back or be rid of the grief that will ever pursue them. Raising a lament to God does not free a person entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s from facing a future of fear and forgetfulness. A woman who cries, “How long, O Lord?” as she agonizes over an abusive relationship may not be instantly freed from her assailant. It is therefore essential that we never consider lament psalms to be magical formulas that ensure praise will immediately fill the lives of those who pray them. As the crisis that leads to the lament may last for a long period of time before it is resolved, we may need to pray the psalms of lament over and over again as we face our trials. But as the form of biblical lament indicates, those in trouble need to be steered in the direction of hope. God hears our prayers, cares about our situation, and will come to our aid. Since God will certainly intervene, we can be sure that praise will follow.
Lament and the church
Lament is rarely given a substantial place in the church, as worship is usually equated with joy and celebration. Expressions of pain, fear, or grief are regularly viewed as symptoms of unbelief or treated as embarrassing abnormalities that should be politely ignored. Strangely, this sidelining of the hurting is similarly present in many modern funerals which have replaced ministry to the grieving and proclaiming the gospel message that death has been overcome in Jesus Christ with a simple recounting of what made the deceased special. This situation is unacceptable because it marginalizes suffering and those who suffer and because it ignores a great body of biblical material that was written to help people through difficult times. When we leave no room for lament in our worship we may well give the impression that people struggling with grief, trauma, and abandonment are either substandard Christians or that they have been left to plough through their difficulties on their own.
Few Christians have experienced relief from grief or pain through a liturgical use of biblical lament. The closest that most of us have to experiencing relief from grief or pain through lament comes through praying prayers of confession and absolution. While some may simply mouth the words and fail to experience any change, the prayers are designed to lead us from despair to joy as we acknowledge that in spite of our sins, God forgives us and assures us that we receive pardon through Jesus Christ. In many services, the prayer of absolution is followed by a hymn of praise to emphasize the joy that one should feel after being forgiven.
Although the words used in these prayers are often taken from the New Testament, they reflect themes that reverberate throughout the psalms but are most closely related to the seven psalms of penitence which have been recognized from the early Christian centuries—Psalms 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; and 143. Although the early church often reserved these psalms for those who were sick or dying, they quickly became an integral part of personal piety of those seeking deliverance from sin and guilt. Modern Christians who are burdened by sin can similarly employ this ancient biblical pattern. If one of these psalms was read and commented on during confession, the congregation could more intelligently adopt the words of the lament while bringing their needs to God. Similarly, a sermon based on one of these psalms could help a congregation understand its purpose in ancient Israel and how to use it today when confessing sins.
In addition to serving as an aid in confession, psalms of lament can be used in many other ways. Since God is the great physician, prayers for the sick can be meaningfully incorporated into worship. Individuals who are ailing can come forward so that hands can be laid on them and prayer offered up for their healing. As many of the lament psalms were written for those experiencing physical illness, there is great pastoral value in making them part of our prayers. Not only do they provide the suffering with words to express their feelings and fears to God in faith, they also point them to the hope that God will hear their prayer, intervene for them, and give them reason to praise his name again. Learned in public worship, these words from the Bible can be taken home so that a person can address God again when praying for oneself or someone else.
Psalms that can be prayed for the sick include Psalms 20; 38; and 41. One should be careful in the use of these psalms as some of them relate illness to personal sin. Such a psalm should be used in a case where sin is present but perhaps exchanged for another when sin is not an issue. Another caution in the use of these psalms is that the words uttered should never be considered a magical formula for physical healing. Long ago the Jewish Rabbis warned that the Psalms were only for spiritual healing and that those who used them for physical healing were guilty of sorcery and should be considered heretics. While they may be overstating the case here, their warning should be heeded lest we descend into sub-Christian practice.
While psalms of lament should be used when praying for the sick, to limit them to that function implies that those suffering from other problems are less significant. The welcome that Jesus showed as he embraced the world of his day should impel us to welcome everyone in need to come for prayer. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). The weary, the burdened, the abused, the ignored, the unemployed, all need Jesus and all can be strengthened by praying the psalms of lament and searching for God’s hope that is an integral part of the prayers.
Reaching beyond the individual, when a church, a nation, or the world is facing a crisis of some sort, services of lament are in order. People throughout the world are suffering for any variety of reasons—natural or manmade. Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions strike without regard for one’s religious orientation. The same can be said with regard to war and social disorder. In other cases, Christians can be singled out for direct attack by governments or other members of society. When disasters of this kind hit, it is only right to demand of God, “Why?” When evil is constantly perpetrated, how can one not ask the Judge of heaven, “How long?” and then plead that he put the evildoers in their place and destroy their works? When trouble or disaster hits a large body of believers, the appropriate response is to bring a corporate lament to God whether during the main weekly service of a church or a special service.
Services of lament are particularly needful when it becomes impossible to take part in a service of praise that contradicts personal and corporate feelings and experience. At such times, bringing heartache and confusion to God may be the only thing that makes worship possible. Joining their brothers and sisters in lament gives sufferers an opportunity to take hold of the faith of others who are grieving along with them or have grieved in the past. When the group has worked through the time of trouble by bringing it to the Lord of all mercy and receiving his answers, it becomes possible for them to return to God with words of praise.
The use of lament in worship need not be reserved for exceptional times of tragedy. It can, and arguably should, become part of our regular worship of God as we traverse the seasons of the year. One of the best ways that this can be done is to integrate lament into our celebration of the Christian Year. As this cycle of feasts developed in early church history, two penitential seasons—Advent and Lent—took prominent place. Sadly, for many churches today the penitential longing of Advent and Lent has been eclipsed by the glory of Christmas and Easter (and often obliterated by the glitter of commercialism). Even so, our desire to experience the joy of Christ’s birth and resurrection should not deprive us of time to consider the wonder of the incarnation that brought on our Savior’s suffering. By becoming man, the Creator faced obscurity, the Almighty experienced rejection and ridicule, the Righteous One endured temptation without giving in to sin, and the eternal Lord died for the sins of others. These sober realities require somber reflection. As the seasons of Advent and Lent are designed to give us time to consider these themes, we should avail ourselves of this opportunity.
This does not mean that the seasons should only focus on fasting and solemn thoughts. Advent and Lent, while not designed to follow the structure of the psalms of lament, work in a similar direction since they begin by focusing on sin, suffering, and weakness, and end with celebrations of hope and joy. Like the laments, both seasons are imbued with eschatological hope. As the Old Testament saints remembered God’s past salvation while awaiting deliverance from their times of trouble, those who celebrate Christmas and Easter remember what God accomplished by sending Jesus as they await the second coming when Christ will fully establish his kingdom, judge the world of sin, and allow us to experience the resurrection life for ourselves.
Restoring lament to our worship clearly benefits the church in numerous ways. In recognition that life is not always joyful, it allows us to live through the difficult times in God’s presence. This is true whether the difficulty is the result of a natural disaster, traumatic experience, or chronic illness. The inclusion of lament may allow those who may have felt marginalized due to their problems to enter into worship in a new way. It can help us come to a new perspective about sin and the hope we have that Christ has sufficiently dealt with it on the cross. As we follow the pattern set out in the psalms of lament, we learn that we can boldly bring all of our troubles before the Lord who will hear us, intervene for us, and give us the hope that we will praise him again in this world and be freed from trouble in the next.