Professor of Spiritual Formation at Tyndale Seminary

June 2011

Volume 3

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We are well aware that life is not always filled with joy and happiness. We know pain and brokenness, alienation and confusion, doubt and despair, and at times the seeming absence of God. When we feel that God has abandoned us we can begin to identify with the words Jesus spoke as he was dying “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:2). This is the cry of lament.

One of the places we discover lament is in the Psalms. At times the lament was a cry of agony as the individual struggled to figure out why things happened and why God even allowed them to occur in the first place. The psalmist wrote:

O Lord God Almighty,
    how long will your anger smoulder against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
    you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us a source of contention to our neighbours
    and our enemies mock us. (Ps 80:4-6)

Sometimes behind the cry of lament there is a great deal of anger. This aspect of lament is often overlooked since many have learned to mask their emotions and in some instances any expression of anger is not permitted. This was not the world of the psalmist. When life was full of pain and struggle and things did not seem to be working out, he expressed not only his anger and frustration but also that he expected God to give him some answer to his questions because life did not make sense. The psalmist wrote:

You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
    and have scattered us among the nations.
You sold your people for a pittance,
    gaining nothing from their sale.
You have made us a reproach to our neighbours,
    the scorn and derision of those around us. . . .
All this happened to us,
    though we had not forgotten you
    or been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
    our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
    and covered us with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
    or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
    would not God have discovered it,
    since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we faced death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Awake O Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. . . .
Rise up help us;
    redeem us because of your unfailing love. (Ps 44:11-13, 17-23, 26)

The cry of lament also reveals confusion. Sometimes the writer is looking for answers that are not forthcoming.

I cried out to God for help;
    I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
    at night I stretched out untiring hands
    and my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered you O God and I groaned;
    I mused and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
    I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
    the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
    My heart mused and my spirit inquired:
‘Will the lord reject forever?
    Will he never show his favour again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
    Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
    Has he in anger withheld his compassion’? (Ps 77:1-9)

Many when they read these and similar texts are uncomfortable with such raw emotion and believe it is wrong to express it in such a manner. After all this is God to whom we are addressing our complaints. But denying or suppressing our emotions will not make them go away nor are we hiding anything from God, for he knows our heart. Rather, as we acknowledge our situation and express what we are feeling to God, we are able to process our feelings in a healthy manner. Westermann states: “the function of lament is to provide a structure for crisis, grief, or despair; to move the worshipper from hurt to joy, from darkness to light, from desperation to hope.”1

In the church, we have been somewhat reluctant to use the psalms of lament or at best they have been used minimally, (an example would be post 911 services when a nation mourned and lamented the tragedy of terrorism) because we are not used to embracing the negative aspects of life. Walter Bruggemann suggests the psalms of lament are really a bold act of faith because “it insists that the world must be experienced  as it really is and not in some pretended way … It is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject of discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold part of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God.”2 Bruggemann then concludes, “These psalms lead us into the dangerous acknowledgement of how life really is. They lead us into the presence of God where everything is not polite or simple.”3

Sometimes our lament is very personal but at other times it is a corporate expression. Realizing that almost half of the psalms are psalms of lament, and that the psalter is the hymnbook of the people of God, there are two implications. First, lament is intended to be expressed in a corporate setting and, second, it is set to music. If we do not grasp this we lose the thrust of the psalms. But this tends to be troublesome since our worship is perceived to be celebratory. Even if we are in the midst of pain and struggle we tend to ignore what is going on and try to pretend everything is fine. In addition the songs of lament are set in a minor key which is hardly joyful. But who can sing about pain and suffering in a major key?   Since we believe no one wants to worship with someone who is sad or bitter or lonely or angry at God we seldom sing the songs of lament because most people do not want to enter into the pain of others? But can we be a true community of faith if we don’t enter into the pain or struggle of others? Michael Card states: “Our failure to lament cuts us off from each other. If you and I are to know each other in a deep way, we must not only share our hurts, anger and disappointment with each other, we must also lament them together before the God who hears and is moved by our tears. The degree to which I am willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the commitment and love for them. If I am not interested in your hurts, I am not interested in you.’4

Perhaps we might begin to see the prayers of lament as the first step in a healing process for the brokenness of our lives and our communities. When we do this we begin to incarnate the words of Jesus as he began his ministry “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and the recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk.4:18-19)

  • 1 Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980), pg.4.
  • 2 Walter Bruggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), pg.52.
  • 3 Walter Bruggemann, The Message of the Psalms, pg.53.
  • 4 Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), pg.29.

One Comment

  1. avatar

    Lament prayers can also be formative for interceding for others. Is the Church not sent to intercede for those who have received injustice? Is part of our mission to cry out against what is not right for others outside the fold? The laments give permission and pattern to pray for others. Our prayers enter a different dimension moving from therapeutic to militant. We remind God of not only the injustice but his intent to make things right.

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