Cancer. Miscarriage. Slavery. Sex trafficking. Abortion. Racial Injustice. Marital infidelity. Divorce. Job loss. Spiritual abuse. Physical abuse. Corruption. Cover-ups. Sin. Death.
Have you experienced any of these issues in your life? Have you wrestled and struggled with these issues as they occur in the culture around us? Perhaps you presently find yourself distressed by one or many of these issues, but you cannot seem to find a way to express yourself in a way that draws all of the emotions out of your heart. For the Christian, the great question we face in this life is not IF we will experience grief and pain, but HOW we will deal with these various issues when we inevitably encounter them in our personal lives as well as in the culture around us.
In his book written about lament titled, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Pastor Mark Vroegop writes:
“A broken world and an increasingly hostile culture make contemporary Christianity unbalanced and limited in the hope we offer if we neglect the minor-key song of lament. We need to recover the ancient practice of lament and the grace that comes through it. Christianity suffers when lament is missing.”
I concur with Pastor Vroegop and believe that with all the evils in the world around us and the many trials facing us individually, we must recover this language of lament in our own day. Matthew Henry once said, “days of trouble must be days of prayer.” As we encounter trials within and evils without, lament is the language provided to us by God in order to express the deepest sorrows, struggles, fears, and perhaps even anger that lies within our hearts. The question I want to ask you the reader today is this: are you using this language? In this short article, I want first to explain what lament is not, show you from scripture what lament is, and finally present some practical ways in which you can apply the language of lament in your own prayers and singing.
There are three primary dangers that must be avoided by every Christian when confronted with sorrow and evil in this life. The first danger is that of stoicism. When confronted with trials, the stoic simply says, “grin and bear it!” The attitude of stoicism is “stiffen the upper lip, hold it together, and move on.” Stoicism seeks to stuff the griefs of this life into a compartment and press on as if nothing was wrong.
The second danger is that of cynicism. The cynic says, “this is just the way things are, and things will never change.” While the cynic may recognize things are not as they should be, their sorrow lulls them to sleep rather than spurring them on to prayer and action. Cynicism presents an attitude of apathy and lethargy in the face of sorrow and evil, and its end result is a general numbness that hardens a person to things that should not be accepted. Rather than producing godly anger and then action to bring about change, cynicism produces a deadly skepticism and laziness, which just accepts the status quo.
The final danger is that of unrighteous anger. Perhaps you have heard a statement like this: “that’s not fair! Where does God get off treating me this way!” There is indeed Godly anger in the face of sin. But Godly anger is always primarily concerned with God’s glory rather than self. Sinful anger is always primarily concerned with self and the offense caused to it rather than God. Sinful anger lashes out at God and other people rather than sin, whereas Godly anger addresses sin and seeks to bring God His rightful glory where it has been denied.
What Lament is Not
While many dangerous pitfalls confront a Christian in this world; lament is a God-given language of expression for the toughest days and the most trying times. While we should absolutely avoid stoicism, cynicism, and unrighteous anger, we have been graciously given the language of lament as the biblical and righteous way to cry out before God. Before looking at what lament is and how we can practice it, we first need to establish what lament is NOT.
First, lament is not faithlessness. We do not deny the sovereignty of God when we lament. Many Christians act more like stoics when confronted with suffering because they are afraid that honestly expressing grief to God would be somehow faithless. Pastor Vroegop again helpfully states, “lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.”
Second, lament is not thankless. Many people worry that if they honestly cry out to God regarding their pain and sorrow that it would somehow demonstrate that they are not thankful for what the Lord has given them.
Finally, lament is not an expression of hopelessness. God himself has given us this language in order that we may grow in our faith. As Christian, we possess the rich promises of God contained in His word. These promises protect us from a fatalistic sort of suffering, which leads to cynicism and spiritual depression rather than grace and spiritual growth. We must be careful not to view lament as a faithless, thankless, or hopeless cry into the dark. On the contrary, it is a God-given, faithful, thankful, and hopeful manner of expression for the worst of days.
So What is Lament?
In Psalm 77, we see a wonderful example of a biblical lament. The Psalm opens with these words of Asaph: “My voice rises to God, and I will CRY aloud.” In the first two verses, it is repeated four times that Asaph sought the Lord and cried out to Him. The first element of every lament is an honest opening of the mouth and crying to God. Biblical lament is quite literally the opposite of faithlessness because it presupposes that God is sovereign, and it rises to Him with a humble cry. The humble and righteous man cries out to God in times of trouble, but the proud and foolish man leans upon his own strength. Whereas stoicism grins and bears the troubles of life, lament requires a cry out to God. Whereas cynicism accepts the status quo of an evil world, lament cries out to God that all is not right. And whereas unrighteous anger lashes out AT God in the midst of trial, lament is a cry TO God seeking His aid.
Dear reader, silence in the face of the sorrows of this life can be deadly to your soul. Let me encourage you to cry out to God no matter how bad your circumstances and no matter what you are facing. The sovereign God of the universe delights to hear, listen to, and answer the prayers of His people! (Psalm 50:15; Proverbs 15:8; Revelation 5:8). Be careful not to turn to diversions such as sports, drinking, drugs, sex, recreation, or work in order to dull or numb your pain and sorrow. Instead, cry out to God! This is where all faithful lament begins.
The second element of biblical lament is complaint. The Scottish theologian Alexander Mclaren once wrote:
“Doubts are better put into plain speech than lying diffused and darkening, like poisonous mists in the heart. A thought, be it good or bad, can be dealt with when it is made articulate.”
Silence in the face of suffering can be spiritually deadly. It is like a poisonous mist in the heart. It is far better to lay your doubts, frustrations, and sorrows before God than to remain silent about them. Biblical complaint is the honest expression before God of the feelings and frustrations one has in the midst of trial and evil. This is a common theme in nearly every lament found in the bible: the emotions and feelings of the heart are laid out before God, whether they be right or wrong. Complaints are frequently expressed by the question WHY? One of the most famous complaints, for example, can be found in Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.” This was the very complaint used by Christ upon the cross at Golgotha. In his human nature, Christ suffered unimaginable torment and truly felt as though his prayers were unanswered and that the Father was far removed from Him.
Now, while complaint is a necessary element of lament, it must also be stressed that the license to complain does not mean a license to rail. While offering up the honest feelings of our hearts and our frustrations is warranted, putting God on trial and railing against Him is not. John Flavel writes:
“There is no sin in complaining TO God, but there is much wickedness in complaining OF Him. Griefs are eased by groans and heart pressures relieved by utterance.”
Notice in that famous complaint of Psalm 22 the faithfulness contained therein. While it is the voice of a seriously grieved man, it nonetheless cries out, “My God, my God! In Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on this Psalm, we see the following quote about this complaint:
“This is not the ‘why’ of impatience or despair, not the sinful questioning of one whose heart rebels against his chastening, but rather the cry of a lost child who cannot understand why his father has left him, and who longs to see his father’s face again.”
Complaining TO God is right and good. Complaining OF God and accusing Him however is sinful and wicked and must be avoided. The cry of complaint must arise from a humble heart seeking clarity; not a prideful heart seeking justification.
The final element of lament is that of confidence. It is vital to understand that lament does not end in complaint alone. Far too many people wallow in complaint and never make it out of the “swamp of despondency.” Martyn Lloyd Jones once famously said, “most of your unhappiness is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself.” One of my favourite lament Psalms is Psalm 42. In that Psalm, the Psalmist pours out his complaint before God “my tears have been my food,” but the Psalmist does not stop there. Rather, he takes himself in hand and talks to himself rather than listening to himself: “why are you in despair O my soul? Why have you become so disturbed within me? Hope in God.”
If we are to avoid getting stuck in the “swamp of despondency,” we must take ourselves in hand and remind ourselves of who God is and what He has done for us in the past. Though all around us, we see sin, suffering, and the horrible effects of the fall, we must remind ourselves of the faithful God whose word never fails. Though we see violence and hatred emanating through our television screens on a nightly basis, we must take ourselves by the hand and remind ourselves of the God who has loved us with an everlasting love.
At the outset of this article, I mentioned many horrible and real occurrences that face us on a daily basis in this fallen world. Dear reader, I urge you not to be a stoic in the face of the sorrows of this life. The seeming “strength” of stoicism is a lie. It is unhealthy, joyless, and unbiblical. True health and joy can only be found in coming to the end of yourself casting yourself into the arms of a saviour who loves you and gave himself for you. You were never meant to “grin and bear the suffering and paint of this life. Rather, you are invited to “cast all your anxiety upon Christ, for He cares for you. What a wonderful comfort it is that we can cast all of our sorrows upon THE man of sorrows knowing he cares for us and loves us with an everlasting love!
Likewise, don’t become cynical in the face of evil, and please do not grow angry with God. Instead, lament! Cry out to God! He is sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Don’t remain silent. Whatever it is that you may be going through, cry out to Him! Humbly lay your complaints before God, knowing that He delights humility. He sees, He knows, and He cares. And always take yourself in hand back to the living and abiding Word of God. God never lies; He never fails. He remains the same yesterday, today, and forever: faithful and true.
Evil, sin, and sorrow are real and sadly guaranteed as we walk through this veil of tears. I urge you not to waste your suffering. We waste our suffering by becoming angry with God. We waste our suffering by acting like emotionless stoics. And we waste it by burying our feelings in cynical fits of apathy rather than crying out to God. Suffering provides us with a platform whereby our trust in God is refined, our self-reliance is stripped away, and our faith in God is increased. Pastor Vroegop astutely points out, “to cry is human but to lament is Christian.” Lament is a God-given tool to increase our reliance upon and trust in God despite the most miserable circumstances. I hope and pray that you will utilize this most necessary tool, and that your suffering, trying as it may be, will deepen your love and dependence upon God.