Learning to Lament: The Danger of Avoiding Lament

Lament isn’t easy. It’s not usually the most comfortable or natural response. It’s easier to wallow in the pain or try to numb it somehow. To jump into the boat and embark on the journey of lament requires trust in our Good Shepherd to lead us and to meet us with His steadfast love and anchoring truth. 

One thing that helps motivate me to engage in lament is to acknowledge and remember the dangers of avoiding lament and the gifts that I would miss out on. So what are some of the things that can happen when we don’t lament?

  • Our emotions become the only voice we hear and the only lens through which we see and evaluate everything. 
  • We become calloused and cynical. We avoid the people and situations that feel painful, and end up withdrawing from God and others. 
  • Hopelessness sets in and we become paralyzed, rather than being moved toward appropriate action.
  • We seek satisfaction, comfort and relief in empty things. 
  • We rush to our own solutions instead of waiting on God. We try to get around the suffering rather than moving through it. 
  • Grief always comes out, even if we try to bottle it up. It may explode in the context of our relationships, or be expressed through other emotions, such as anger or fear. 
  • The pain we’re experiencing now continues to be a raw wound that we carry around with us into the future—open, vulnerable, sensitive and never truly healed. 
  • In a corporate sense, we are less effective in connecting with and ministering to people who are suffering. 
  • We miss out on knowing God more intimately. We start feeling like God is distant because we’re not walking through it with Him.
  • We miss the opportunity to grow in our faith and have our hearts shaped by God.

Learning to Lament: Grieving the Small Things

We live in a comparison culture. As self-oriented people, we constantly measure ourselves against others. We even compare our suffering. When our situation doesn’t seem as bad as someone else’s, we will often dismiss our struggles as not significant enough to mention (to God or to a friend). But if we ignore our experience and don’t acknowledge its impact, the hurt is still there. We don’t learn or grow by dismissing it; the pain just festers and bleeds into our relationships and behavior. 

One of the beautiful truths about lament is that even the small things are an invitation to turn to God and walk through it with Him. Relationships are forged in the daily moments. If we only turn to our Father in crisis, we won’t have intimate trust and dependence built up, and we won’t know His voice as well. The more often we turn to Him with a humble posture of lament, the more we will grow.

The current pandemic has delivered so many unexpected disappointments and losses. You may not have lost a loved one or your job, but you have been impacted in some way. How can we learn to deal with disappointment in a way that is both honest and humbly dependent on God? Lament gives us a language and a framework to process through the daily hurts and losses, to be comforted by God’s presence, and directed by Him in how to respond. When we turn to God, every small thing is an opportunity to know Him more and be shaped to reflect Him to others. 

The process of grieving the small things looks just like any other lament:

  • Turn to God and acknowledge the struggle, whether it comes in the form of loss, fear, confusion or disappointment. Give voice to what you feel.
  • Seek God’s help to understand why you’re feeling this way. Why does this struggle feel significant? What do you care about and value in this situation?
  • How do God’s character and ways speak to your experience? Remember truth, cry out to Him for help and wisdom, and yield your heart to trust in Him.

Learning to lament the everyday hurts and disappointments takes some intentional practice to develop a rhythm of noticing and taking them to God. In my life, I want this turning to become an automatic response from a heart that knows, loves and is yielded to my Father—as natural as reaching for food when I’m hungry. Here are some practical tools that are helping me grow: 

  • Journaling. When I’m not journaling, I’m not really processing. This practice helps me to be still enough to understand what I’m dealing with and encourages me to be consistent in turning to God. 
  • Sharing with a friend. We can benefit from the help of other believers to give a fresh perspective on what we’re going through and remind us of truth. 
  • Recognizing patterns. There tend to be certain themes connected to the things I get upset about and the reasons why they impact me. Noticing these patterns helps me learn about my own heart and emphasizes what God is teaching me.
  • Searching Scripture. As I see these patterns and learn from God’s Word, it’s helpful to keep a list of truths and verses from Scripture that remind me of what God has been showing me about Himself and how I live before Him. 

Learning to Lament: Grieving in Community

There is much beauty in personal lament as we connect one-on-one with our Father. We need that intimate kind of lament. But God has designed the church as a family, so there is also great fruit in practicing lament in the context of community. Sometimes we are all facing the same loss or hardship, and grieving together strengthens the entire Body as we point one another to the Lord and collectively root ourselves in truth. The shared experience of honest, raw lament can bring healing and unity to the whole community. Difficulty has a tendency to lead us to turn inward and deal with the pain alone, so it takes intentional effort to see each other, engage, and walk through grief together. 

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

—Romans 12:15, ESV

The more common occurrence is for an individual, family or group within the Body to go through seasons of unique suffering. We may struggle to know what to say or how to help, since there’s usually not much we can actively do to change the situation. But lament praying can be a helpful tool to connect with those who are suffering, letting them know they are seen and loved. Through lament, we can enter into the pain of others—growing in understanding and empathy through listening, calling out to God on their behalf, and standing with them in solidarity. As members together of the same Body, what happens to one person impacts all of us. 

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 

—1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV

As we come close to the suffering and sit with them in the pain, a gift we can offer is to pray for them (and with them if they’re willing), crying out on their behalf when they feel too broken to put words together. And as we think about coming alongside those who are suffering to lament with and for them, we know that times will come when we are the ones who need to invite others into our pain and lean on them. 

Another type of lament that can be done in community is corporate repentance. This practice doesn’t seem to be very common in American churches today, but we see many examples in Scripture (such as Nehemiah 1:1-11 and 9; Daniel 9:3-19; Ezra 9:6-10:1). Whether it’s the whole church Body praying together, or the pastors leading, coming together to confess our common sin and turn toward repentance can be a powerful practice used by God to produce much fruit—in individual hearts and the church as a whole.

This work of walking through grief in community has to be rooted in love, empathy and humility. It’s a way that we reflect the incarnating work of Jesus, who took on flesh and entered into our broken world to bring redemption. As we learn to lament together, it can yield closer relationships, unity, and the whole Body being built up in Christ and pointed toward truth. Through listening to and understanding the trials of others as we come alongside them, lament also leads us to compassionate action (Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Hebrews 10:32-34; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). 

Learning to Lament: Love and Longing

As we walk with God through lament, He reorients our mind toward truth by His Word. But He also works to shape our heart, to grow in us a deeper love and longing for Him and His Kingdom. The God-focused, reorienting nature of lament makes it an act of worship, which in turn amplifies and deepens our worship. 

“Every feeling that turns toward God actually becomes part of our worship.”

Untangling Emotions

The work of lament in my own heart is stretching and humbling; it’s pulling me in deeper. It’s been leading me to behold more of the surpassing greatness of God and be satisfied in Him. Here are some of the ways that I’ve seen God use lament to shape hearts:

  • Aligning our heart to love what God loves. He values life and people. He stands for what is good. He loves justice and redemption, truth and grace. Instead of just chasing our desires and loving ourselves, lament can conform our loves to His. 
  • Growing in us an increasing distaste for what God opposes. Rather than turning a blind eye to the brokenness in the world, and in our heart and life, we can acknowledge and grieve our own sin, as well as the ravages of sin and brokenness that we bump up against each day.
  • Giving us an increasing longing for redemption and the motivation to join God in this work. It may mean forgiving someone who has hurt you and working to pursue reconciliation, or sharing with others the invitation of the Gospel to be reconciled to God through Christ. We reach out to others, especially those who have been marginalized, and invite them to come near. 
  • Having our expectations shaped by His purposes. Lament can increase our eternal perspective and give us open eyes to see how God is at work. A change in perspective and expectations transforms how we pray. We still pray for tangible gifts such as healing and financial provision, but we go further to ask for help that is rooted in God’s redemptive purposes—heart change, reconciliation, dependence, perseverance, increased faith, humility, and so on. Lament helps us lean into the painful things we face and look for resurrection. 
  • Making our heart tender toward God and people. As we experience God’s comfort and compassion toward us, our love and trust in Him grows stronger. As we see our own brokenness and weakness, and God’s mercy in response, we’re equipped with grace to love others and walk patiently with them. 

Learning to Lament: God Speaks

The voices of pain, fear and anger speak loudly. As we journey through lament, we need to listen to and be reoriented by God’s voice. Thankfully, God not only sees and cares for us, but He speaks His words to our broken hearts. Since creation, God has been speaking life and hope and purpose. The written Word reveals Himself—through it we learn His character, His ways and His heart. But it’s not just information—God’s words are relational and purposeful. 

The practice of pouring out our hearts in humble complaint may feel like the easier and more familiar step, but an essential aspect of the lament process is tuning our hearts to hear and receive what God is saying to us. So what are some of the words that God speaks to those who are grieving?

  • God is near, and nothing can separate us from His love. Whatever our pain, He invites us to walk through it with Him. 
  • Just as God daily fed the Israelites with manna during their wilderness journey, He gives us grace and strength for today, and will give it again tomorrow. 
  • No other refuge is sufficient. In Him, we will find rest and joy and hope.
  • He loves what is good and hates what is evil.
  • God is still at work. His power is perfect, and His purposes will be accomplished. 
  • There is more beyond our suffering. We are invited into God’s eternal Kingdom reality, where our present pain is light and momentary compared with our future hope, which is secure and glorious.
  • The world is broken, and we are in need of grace—but He is a God of redemption, and He is making all things new. 

Learning to Lament: The Journey

“To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.” 

Mark Vroegop

It’s natural to want comfort when we’re hurting, so we tend to seek out other people as a sounding board where we rehearse our pain and receive their comfort and affirmation. We cry, we vent, we replay our suffering on an endless loop. For me, it’s so easy to get stuck in that place—the sadness feels all-consuming and it seems like there’s no way out. Now that I think about it, that’s probably why I often avoid acknowledging the sadness altogether—fear that it will swallow me, that I’ll never get out of the pit. 

However, grief is meant to be productive and active; it’s going somewhere. The destination of lament is not a feeling that things will turn out according to our definition of perfect, or a fake display of happiness. Our destination is trust in God as we move deeper into relationship with Him and lift our eyes to focus on His steadfast love and character. Lament leads us on a journey—from darkness to light, hopeless to resting.

The initial step in this journey is to turn to God in response to His invitation. The next element is what we normally think of as the central aspect of grief—crying out to God, pouring out our heart before the Lord. We acknowledge the pain, hurt, fears and frustrations, and we take them to Him. This crying out is very different from just venting though, because of who we’re talking to—God our Father who creates all things and yet knows, loves and cares about us individually. He is the God of all comfort, and we’re talking to Him in the context of relationship.

The journey continues on from there though, leading us to recall God’s character and faithfulness and look to Him for help and hope. By lifting our eyes up off of the pain and focusing on Him, our perspective can be reframed by truth. Like with a camera lens that’s been zoomed all the way in, we can widen the picture, refocus, and see the broader context of what we’re dealing with. Our small story is always happening within God’s grand narrative of redemption. As we continually turn to God and have our vision clarified by His presence, promises and purposes, we grow in trusting and resting in Him, which is where lament graciously leads us. Trust doesn’t mean everything is tied up in a bow—rather, it’s a reminder and persistent recognition that we are tethered to our good God. 

Lament isn’t a one-time linear process; it’s a road we’re going to be traveling as long as we sojourn in this broken world. But it isn’t stagnant; it’s active, moving us toward God and toward each other. 

Learning to Lament: The Invitation

I recently read Mark Vroegop’s book about lament entitled Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy. It gave me a perspective that I really appreciate, and has become a resource that I often recommend to those I counsel. But I’ve been realizing during this season that I really need to learn how to practice lament myself. 

According to Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, the first step of lament is to turn to God. It sounds simple enough, but sometimes this initial turning is the hardest part. Feelings of cynicism or hopelessness can lead us to seek our own solutions. For me, I tend to either plow ahead and try to fix or control the situation, or I just numb my emotions with distractions like food and tv because it feels like too much to think about. We turn to all the wrong places looking for hope and comfort. 

Though I often cry out to God in short bursts, what I really need is to fully turn, sit with Him, and be still. The pain and fear are hard to face, but I know my good Father is inviting me: “Come, you who are weary.” “Seek My face.” “Abide in My love.” “Take refuge in Me.” How foolish it would be for me to ignore that sweet invitation. These are not things I can solve or face on my own, and ignoring or numbing the pain won’t bring about any good fruit. My Father is inviting me to run into His arms, to know His love and mercy, to be shaped by His truth, to find hope in His redemptive work. My heart breaks over the brokenness of the world, and I don’t want to turn away and pretend not to see. Lament is designed to take us on a journey, and the first step is to turn and run into the open arms of our Father, who has entered into our broken world and is redeeming people to Himself.

These Things That Are Not Mine

I would gladly borrow Your knowledge, Lord, so that I could avoid dwelling in the tension of not knowing when this season will end. It feels like life is on hold, and we don’t know what will be left when this is all over. Will there be jobs, food, money? Will there be a future for us, and what will it hold? It seems like the hard things would be easier and more comfortable if we knew the expiration date, if we knew that peace and relief were on the way.

I would gladly borrow Your power in order to make this stop—to keep people from dying and going broke, to make life comfortable and predictable. To keep my friends and family safe, to make sure I’m protected and provided for, to fulfill my own plans and desires.

I would gladly borrow Your ability to be present everywhere. I miss my people, and I long to hold them close. Presence is such an undervalued gift, until we’re suddenly thrust into isolation, and we crave the togetherness that we often didn’t take time for before.

I want to borrow all these things, Lord, but I know that there’s a reason that they belong only to You. You are the One who holds all things together, and You are able to work in all things to accomplish Your purposes. Instead of clamoring for knowledge, help me to trust an unknown future to You my Father, the One who knows me, knows the story from beginning to end, and has made His perfect love fully known. Rather than grasping for control, help me to remember Your sovereignty and be humbly surrendered to You. Your ways are higher than mine, Your purposes are so much greater. Turn my heart to cherish and prioritize the spiritual over the temporal. And when I long to be present with the people I love, let me lift my eyes to You and choose to rejoice and be content with knowing that You are present with them, and that is the greater gift. You know their situations and their hearts. You alone are the God of Peace. May I come into Your presence each day and walk more closely with You, for in Your presence there is fullness of joy.

A Patient Pursuit

Whether we’re in ministry or not, we all experience relationships that are more challenging than satisfying (I’m not addressing abusive relationships here). In difficult relationships, it’s easy to feel frustrated or hurt, and persevering can be a struggle. Often, it’s evident in our interpretation and response how much we’re focused on ourselves and how difficult the relationship is for us. I found myself in such a mindset recently, and a friend reminded me that God calls us to a patient pursuit of people.

Whatever they are struggling with in their lives, we can engage with them and welcome them in. The gospel is put on full display when we move toward them with the love of the Father, rather than pulling away when we’re offended. Instead of focusing on our own dissatisfaction or disappointment in the relationship, God wants to align our hearts with His to grieve our friend’s sin and suffering, as He does. With a compassionate and tender heart, we seek to know and understand them, to encourage and speak truth in love.

Besides pursuing the relationship, we want to also pursue God in prayer on their behalf. When the focus shifts from the relationship being about our happiness and satisfaction, to being used to honor God and accomplish His purposes, we are led to walk in dependence on Him and to be long-suffering, as He is with us. Sometimes we can feel like the burden is on us to change our friend or fix their situation. We end up being driven by a desire to make ourselves feel better, to relieve the guilt or pressure we feel. But God is the only one who can open eyes and change hearts. And it is He who has the power to be a fully sufficient comfort and help in the midst of suffering. As we seek God in prayer for our friend, He can help us to patiently wait on His timing and rest in His ways, with our hope firmly set on Him.

This patient pursuit requires humility. In difficult relationships, two common pitfalls are withdrawing and giving up on the friendship, and crushing them as we seek control and try to grasp for the desired outcome to happen in our preferred timeframe. But a patient pursuit is more concerned with God’s glory and purposes than our own comfort or desires…it humbly remembers God’s own patience with us and seeks to be dependent on Him.