When I teach on the topic of biblical lament I like to ask my class whether lament should be a part ofthe gathered worship of the church. Inevitably the response is mixed. Some raise hesitant hands to tell me that there is value to lament in the gathered body, that we should do it more often — but that we must be careful with it. Some feel strongly that lament is important for the processing of personal grief, but are unable to see its value in a corporate setting. A few, over the years, have suggested that lament is inappropriate for the Christian life; now that we have the person and work of Christ, we should walk in that joy and limit our prayers to praise.
I have never had someone give me a short, sweet “Absolutely!”
Yet, as I’ve continued to study and teach biblical lament, I’ve come to realize that a failure to lament in our gathered worship is one of the biggest barriers to authentic faith in our communities. Biblical lament addresses God, calling upon specific aspects of his revealed character. It engages in an honest and emotionally real analysis of a current situation — a situation that does not align with God’s character and his plan for the world. It expects our good, powerful, merciful, just God to respond — recognizing his ability to act even within a seemingly impossible situation — and therefore results in trust and praise through circumstance (not despite it).
Michael Jinkins, in his book In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament, identifies the central theme of the entire book of Psalms as “the Lord reigns.” The psalms of lament, then, hold a very special place in the book of Psalms. They affirm the reign of God even in the midst of circumstances that would seem to refute it. They shout “The Lord reigns!” into the teeth of life’s darkest moments, proclaiming the already-and-not-yet triumph of a good, powerful, just God in the midst of pain, hunger, sorrow, confusion, oppression, despair, and even death.
If we don’t affirm God’s reign in this way individually, then we can never bring our full self to our relationship with God. We have ruled a portion of our lives — the portion that confronts pain — as outside of God’s purview, as inadmissible to our relationship with him.
And if we don’t lament as a congregation? Well, then we promote the idea that our gathered worship is reserved for the happy and well-fed. That those who struggle with sin or grief or sickness or poverty should just stay home. We declare them unwelcome in our midst. (This makes an interesting contrast to Jesus’ declaration that all who do not welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked are, in fact, outside of his kingdom — Matt. 25:41-43.) By failing to lament in our gathered worship, we propagate a circumstantial faith — faith that is dependent on things going well — rather than faith that is dependent on the character and actions of God.
And what are we telling the world at our doorstep? That hunger and poverty — so pervasive that they barelymake news any more — are fine? That the horrors being perpetrated in Syria, Nigeria, and Ukraine are okay? That environmental degradation is God’s intention for our world? Biblical lament cries out the intention of God in the midst of the desolation of sin, calling his people to action and declaring that this is not all. That there is hope.
So how do we do this in our local congregations? Thankfully, implementation of biblical lament is easier than it might seem. Sometimes, lament will be a simple expression of trust in the midst of an honest expression of circumstance. A speaker might say, “Some of us are tired today. Some of us are confused and saddened and even frightened by the forces of darkness at work in our world
this week. Some of us are mourning the loss of someone we love, or perhaps of a dream we held dear — but we know, in the midst of our struggle, that God is God still. And we know that we do not walk alone.”
Sometimes lament will be a prayer: an honestly-phrased congregational prayer that doesn’t gloss over hard circumstances with trite platitudes; a song that admits to pain while expressing trust and communicating “joy in the midst”; or a passionate and specific prayer for our suffering, struggling world. Not a blanket statement asking for peace, or food, or healing, but a prayer that accurately and vividly describes the situation and calls to account those who are actively perpetrating injustice — preferably by name.
Lament might be as simple as praying “I don’t know” in a circumstance that doesn’t make sense when considered alongside the goodness of God and his promises of love and mercy. Because I don’t have to have the answers, not to the big “whys.” What answer can I give my friend who recently lost a child? What answer can I give to those living with constant fear? There is, sometimes, very little to be said.
What is needed, instead, is the ability to climb down into that dark corner and whisper with them, “I don’t know why. But I do know that God is good. I know that he loves you. And I will sit with you here in the dark until we start to see that light.” That is the hope of lament: the faith that one day all things will be made new, and there will no longer be confusion or pain.
I tell my students that biblical lament is the eschatological seat of hope in the body of Christ. By crying out to God to come, and to come quickly — by screaming out our sorrow and frustration as a community and on behalf of the world, calling upon a merciful, powerful, just God to change things — we realign ourselves with God’s person and purposes. We find trust, even joy. We rediscover
hope. And through our circumstances — in the teeth of all the darkness that surrounds us — we declare the reign of the living God who has come and is coming.
Stacey Gleddiesmith is the Director of Worship Arts at Columbia Bible College. She received an MDiv with a concentration in Christianity and the Arts from Regent College, and has over twenty years of experience leading worship in various church and mission contexts. She is particularly interested in the theology of worship and how that translates into our church practices. When she doesn’t have her head in a book, she can be found in the pottery studio, or hiking with her husband Andrew and their big, hairy dog.