Why has this happened to me?” “Where is God?” “What’s the point?” Sometimes, life presents wave after wave of crises. Questions are many, and answers are few. One response is to recognize that events are seasonal: to be anticipated and expected. In other words, they are part of life—even ministerial life. Counselor David Ashburner states, “One point to emphasize is that these questions and feelings are normal and call us all to reexamine our lives, at least periodically. The aging process, life changes, and questions about our relation to ourselves, others, and God cannot be avoided: they are life itself.”1
Denis and Lucy Guernsey, from Fuller Theological Seminary, affirm,
Life in the sense of bonding and attachment, death in the sense of despair and hopelessness, burial in the sense of loss and grief, and resurrection in the sense of renewal and hope are normal in the course of a marriage. . . .
. . . There must be death and burial as well as life and resurrection. Real life demands it all.2
Along with the predictability of despondency comes the possibility of efficacy. Setbacks may actually hold benefits. Says Ashburner, “This [questioning] is a normal part of life, and in the long run a good thing. Ministers often ask congregants to rethink their lives—well, now you have it!”3 Perhaps this is what is meant by the term lament.
“Lament,” or the act of lamenting, is a topic not often spoken about in the church today despite its prevalence in the Psalms. There is a dearth of understanding of why lamenting is a powerful part of our faith and what it can accomplish in our journey with God. Instead, popular Christianity pushes people to stay in a place of happiness or contentedness, even when trials overwhelm us and we need an outlet. Poor discipleship for the purposes of lamenting removes a powerful tool from the hands of people struggling to reconcile their belief in an active God with their experience of a life seemingly bereft of His presence.
Perhaps even more disturbing, laments are deemed as complaining to God or even as sinful expressions of faithlessness. Nothing could be further from the truth, as an examination of one of the lament psalms, Psalm 13, will show.
O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD
because he is good to me (NLT).
Each lament has four elements: an address to God, a description of the complaint, a request for God’s help, and an expression of trust in God. These elements can be very easily traced through Psalm 13. David opens by addressing God in verse one and moves directly into his complaint: he feels forgotten and in anguish because his enemies are having victory over him. Then, in verses 3 and 4, by asking for God to turn and answer his pleas by destroying his enemies, he requests God’s help. Verses 5 and 6 establish David’s trust in God’s goodness despite his circumstances not having changed.
Lament vs. complaint
Complaining to God usually stirs discomfort in today’s Christians. We ought not to complain to a God who has been so generous to us, the thought goes; therefore, it must be a sin to complain. As proof that this type of lament is at least flirting with sin, some point to verses in the Pauline epistles that say not to complain. But we all complain to God about events not going our way, sometimes even in tragic ways. Like David, perhaps our lives, our livelihood, or our reputation are at stake, and God appears to do nothing. What are we to do in these circumstances if not to make our complaints known to God? In the right context, complaints to God are not sinful but—despite the circumstances—represent a defiant exclamation of faith in God.
By moving directly from the complaint to a request for God’s help, we are proving that, in dire situations, we know where our help comes from. We know that we cannot trust in money or human power (today’s chariots and horses) but only in the God who is always for us. Combine this immediate request to God for help with the equally immediate declaration of trust in God, and we can begin to see how lamenting serves a deep spiritual purpose. Nothing has changed in the circumstances between when the complaint is served up to God and when we preemptively thank Him for taking care of us. And yet everything has changed: we have reestablished our trust in God, despite our situation, and we have arrived at this place through the process of lament.
Only by giving voice to our complaints to God do we release the faith to continue to trust in Him. This is very distinct from true complaining. For example, think of the Israelites in their desert wandering. Every time Moses turned around, the nation was complaining about not being in Egypt. They wanted meat to eat. They were thirsty. They were hungry. They were hot. The list goes on and on, and it exasperated Moses. There was no faith component being established by the Israelites in their complaints. There were no declarations of trust in the goodness of God. Instead, they were rebelling against the goodness of God despite all His provisions for them and His obvious presence in the pillar of cloud and fire. The Israelites wanted to separate themselves from God and return to slavery instead of experiencing the freedom God had for them in Canaan.
This contrast between Israel and the psalms of lament underscores one of the purposes behind laments—to praise God. It seems counterintuitive to say that a lament, which includes a complaint, is actually praise, but every lament psalm ends with a declaration of trust in the character and goodness of God. Laments call God to act on the basis of His character and His declared goodness toward us. While it is in the minor key of suffering, it is nevertheless anticipatory praise about the good deeds God is going to perform on our behalf.
The value of lament
In this way, lamenting is also a powerful antidote for fear. It is through lamenting that we remind ourselves that God is for us (see Romans 8:31). By lamenting, we can stir up our own faith because we are calling God to act in accordance with His nature, and this, by definition, forces us to consider His nature, which then draws us to the goodness and consistency of His character. This recognition of God’s goodness and love makes fear dissipate because perfect love casts out fear. As we ruminate on the nature of God, we cannot help but be reminded that He is much larger than our problems.
And yet lamenting can do more: it is a pathway to greater intimacy with God. We know that God is listening to our prayers, which is the core of what a lament is: a prayer to God. As He listens to our prayers, we are able to draw near to Him. James says that if we draw near to God, He will draw near to us; this is the transaction happening in a lament. We are pouring our hearts out to God, hoping against hope for a changed life. In this process, we are drawing near to Him and giving Him an opportunity to return the favor. Oftentimes, laments do not change the circumstances but do greatly modify how we see things because God has drawn near and sheltered us in His cocoon of grace. Grace changes everything.
Lamenting also invites us to participate in the pain of life with others who might be going through something as hard as we are now. As we engage in reading the lament psalms, we may be connecting with the broader church at large, and we are giving ourselves permission to enter into others’ pain. There is something redemptive about entering into another’s pain. After all, Jesus was doing just that when He quoted Psalm 22 on the cross, entering into the pain of many of the Jewish martyrs of his day and, indeed, into the suffering of all humanity.
Lamenting not complaining
Mark Vroegop, lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis and author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, states, “Surveys abound on the number of pastors who are discouraged or depressed. The tenure of many pastors is short—too short. I’ve grieved as I read about three pastors who took their lives in the last two years. In order to stem the tide of weariness and burn-out, pastors should learn how to lament . . . Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.”4
So, lament is something entirely different than mere complaints. When we choose to lament, we are engaging in an ancient practice of recognizing who has the power to change our circumstances; we are also calling God to act on our behalf on the basis of His great love for us. We are encouraging ourselves and lifting ourselves up in faith based on God’s anticipated provision for us. We are choosing to draw near to God by sharing our innermost struggles with Him, trusting that He will be gentle with our pain. And we are entering into the pain of others by lamenting alongside them in their pain.
So, when you need to—and we all at some point need to—lament! It is part of what it means to walk with God.
- David Ashburner, “Midlife Crisis: Growing to Maturity,” Ministry Matters, October 27, 2011, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/1932/midlife-crisis-growing-to-maturity.
- Lucy Guernsey and Dennis Guernsey, Real-Life Marriage (Santa Ana, CA: Hope, 2011), 190.
- Ashburner, “Midlife Crisis.”
- Mark Vroegop, “Pastor, Don’t Quit—Learn to Lament,” Crossway, April 4, 2019, https://www.crossway.org/articles/pastor-dont-quitlearn-to-lament.