The Disappearance of Lament
In addition to the examples we looked at in the last post, there are many, many more that we could look at just in the Book of Psalms. In fact, there are more lament psalms in the Book of Psalms than any other type!
- Psalms of Lament: 60 out of 150 (40%)
- Psalms of Praise: 41 out of 150 (27.3%)
- Psalms of Thanksgiving and Trust: 27 out of 150 (18%)
- Miscellaneous Psalms (teaching, wisdom, worship, etc.): 22 out of 150 (14.7%)*
We know that the Book of Psalms functioned much like a songbook for worship in both the lives of the Israelites and also the early church; with 40% of their songs containing lament, clearly lament was an acceptable part of their worship and their lives!
What about us? Are we as comfortable with the language of lament as our spiritual ancestors?
A research assistant at Abilene Christian University did a project where he examined some modern hymnals (song books), divided the songs into different categories, and compared them to the Book of Psalms. One of the books he examined was Songs of Faith and Praise, which is the hymnal we use at the congregation where I work, and is a popular hymnal in Churches of Christ.
Of the 885 songs in Songs of Faith and Praise:
- Songs of Thanksgiving and Trust: 392 out of 885 (44%)
- Songs Praise: 264 out of 885 (30%)
- Miscellaneous Songs (songs on worship, invitation songs, patriotic, about Christ): 197 out of 885 (22%)
- Songs of Lament: 32 out of 885 (<4%)
Compared to the Book of Psalms, 40% of which is comprised of lament psalms, Songs of Faith and Praise includes lament songs 1/10 as often! I know this is not the most scientific study, but I still think it shows a general truth, which is that we have largely lost the biblical language of lament. Something which is a huge part of the Book of Psalms, and thus a major part of the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament and the early church has largely been removed from the way we speak to each other and to God.
If you think about it, really the only time where we lament together is in the aftermath of a death, but even then in our modern funerals we’ve gotten to where we hardly leave room for lament. Instead, we try to have upbeat “memorial services” where we tell funny stories about the departed, and we expect that after a few weeks people ought to “get over” their grief and get on with their lives. We live in a culture that does everything it can to avoid death, suffering, or discomfort, and a lot of times, that’s how it is in the church as well.
There is no room for lament in our lives.
Now some people might think that this is a good thing: “Well, sure there are a lot of these laments in Psalms and Jeremiah, Habakkuk, etc., but those are in the Old Testament! We live under the new covenant; as Christians, we shouldn’t say things like this because we have victory through Jesus! We should be able to face any trial with a smile on our face!”
Historically though, we know that the early church valued the Book of Psalms as much as the Jews did. New Testament writers refer to the book of Psalms over 400 times, and as already mentioned, the Book of Psalms served as the hymnbook of the early church. The Psalms were very important to the early Christians.
Furthermore, Jesus, our example in all things, shows the characteristics of lament in his life. When His friend Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps, despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead! If it was okay for Jesus to show emotion and be upset when He was troubled, it’s certainly okay for us as well.
When Jesus approaches Jerusalem before the Triumphal Entry, He laments over it because He knows it will be destroyed. Soon after that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, contemplating His coming arrest and crucifixion, Jesus cries out to God and says, in effect, “Father, if there is any way You can save Me from the horror of what’s coming, please do so!” That is lament.
On the cross, in the midst of his torment, Jesus famously cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is a direct quote from Psalm 22, which is one of the lament Psalms.
In addition to the value of the psalms in the early church, we can see clearly that lament was a part of the life of Jesus. Lament is not just an Old Testament phenomenon, it is a biblical phenomenon. It’s a part of faith.
Bringing Lament Back Into Our Lives
And we can see that it’s a part of faith by looking at the laments themselves. In the laments we read together, there is a pattern which arises and this is generally true in the laments:
- They are addressed to God recognizing that He is the One who is in control.
- They involve a complaint; something is wrong in the life of the one who is lamenting.
- They contain a request: the lamenter wants God to do something about the complaint.
- Usually, the laments close with confidence and praise: having turned their request over to God, the lamenter is confident that God is in control, and praises Him for His watchful care.
Seeing these different parts of lament shows that laments are different from just whining and complaining: lament is not about pouting because we don’t get our way. Instead, lament is what occurs when deep faith confronts deep suffering: we suffer, and in our faith, we turn to the Only One who can do anything about our suffering, the God who is in charge and who cares for us.
This faith language which we have lost is something that we need to reclaim.
Think about it this way: you can tell how close your relationship with another person is based on how honest you can be with that person. With that in mind, how honest can you be with God? I think that we’ve gotten the impression that somehow it is wrong or irreverent when bad things happen to ask God questions or to express our frustration or even anger with Him. And because of that, when times get tough, people either walk away from their faith, or they just bury their emotions and pretend that everything is okay.
But God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows when we questions. He knows when we are frustrated. He knows when we are angry with Him. And He can handle that. And rather than us trying to swallow these feelings and pretend they don’t exist, God wants us to bring that to Him. 1 Peter 5.7 tells us to cast all of our anxieties on God, because He cares for us.
And Scripture shows us how to do that. Through the language of lament, we can see how we can cry out to God in our suffering in ways that are honest, but in ways that are still faithful.
Is the church meant to be a place of support and healing where we can be honest with one another about what is going on in our lives and honest with God? Or is it a place of white-washing and mask-wearing, where we put on a brave face and pretend everything is okay even when it most definitely is not?
In these last two posts, we have looked at lament:
We’ve seen how it is a biblical practice, a language of faith that we see throughout Scripture, and especially in the Psalms. We’ve noted the disturbing way in which lament has largely disappeared from the songs we sing, from our culture at large, and even from funerals sometimes. And hopefully, we’ve seen that lament is something we need to reclaim and bring back as a part of our lives of faith. Lament emphasizes that God is in control, that He is the One who can do something about our suffering, and that as a result, it only makes sense that we bring it to Him.
I want to close with three suggestions for how lament can aid us when we go through difficult times in life. When the tough times come, I urge you:
- Be open with your brothers and sisters in Christ about what is going on and how you feel. If we are serious about being the family of God, then that means we are here for one another, and we need to support one another.
- Read through the Psalms. We just looked at a few examples, but 40% of the book is lament. There is a wide array of language which is used to cover a wide array of problems; see how people of faith voiced their suffering to God.
- And most importantly, be honest with God about your suffering. Maybe using some of that same lament language from Psalms, take your suffering and lay it at His feet. He is the one who can handle it and do something about it.
*As I mentioned in the last post, these thoughts (and also the statistics) are greatly informed by Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting With God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.