“The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”
— Dr. Soong-Chan Rah
Lament is a type of prayer expressing sorrow, grief, confusion, or pain—an honest recounting of what is but shouldn’t be. The unflinching truth of lament prayers is, most of the time, combined with a steadfast hope in God.
Between 40-50% of the 150 Psalms are considered lament. While most “resolve” with a turning toward hope or a promise, two Psalms (39, 88) never do. There is an entire book of the Bible (Lamentations) dedicated to lament and the theme of sackcloth and ashes is throughout the old and new testaments.
For a concept that is pervasive, inarguable, and common, lament is not something that Christians practice on a regular basis–either individually or communally. But Jesus led the way for us in lament (John 11) and he shows us how to be before God in our pain.
Most laments follow a basic pattern of complaint, petition, and resolution. Psalm 13 is a classic example of a lament Psalm.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
The first stanza finds the psalmist complaining to God about what is wrong. The second reveals what the psalmist wants from God. Finally, the third stanza resolves with remembering God’s love and goodness.
Cole Arthur Riley in This Here Flesh describes the relationship between lament and hope this way, “Lament is not anti-hope. It’s not even a stepping-stone to hope. Lament itself is a form of hope. It’s an innate awareness that what is should not be. As if something is written on our hearts that tells us exactly what we were meant for, and whenever confronted with something contrary to this, we experience a crumbling. And in the rubble, we say, God, you promised. We ask, Why? And how could we experience such a devastation if we were not on some mysterious plane, hoping for something different. Our hope can be only as deep as our lament is. And our lament as deep as our hope.”
Lament is God’s gift to those who see what is happening in the world and ache with longing for things to be different. Lament is a place for those who are angry at the injustice of it all. Lament is a way to tell the truth about what never should have happened or conditions that never should have existed. It is a way to keep the heart honest and soft.
And the Bible gives those who have no heart for hope a safe place to be in God’s presence. The two unresolved Psalms teach us that there are moments when hope is just too far of a walk. The following poem by Drew Jackson is such a lament. Read it and know that if your heart is heavy and burdened you are not alone.
From Behind Bars
From behind bars it’s hard to see if the long arc
of the moral universe
is bending toward justice.
I have heard reports of a movement, working to bring change,
but all I can see are COs and prison guards laughing at talk of abolition.