I was recently asked to comment on the appropriateness of lamenting as a Christian, given the stress people are under because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In short, lament is a very appropriate response to the cruel losses and hardships of these days. The Bible not only has a book named Lamentations, but the overwhelming majority of the Psalms, the worship book of Israel, contain strong elements of lamentation.
What is a lament?
A lament is a complaint to God for the way things are. It’s based on the strong conviction that we are in a covenant relationship with the living God and that we trust in him for protection, help, and rescue in times of need, particularly when we are under attack. To be sure, in both Lamentations and in many psalms with laments, the writers are clear that we are often truly guilty and that God has brought sufferings on us in righteousness. But even suffering that is deserved falls within the covenantal mercies of God, as does inexplicable suffering, for example, the sufferings of plague, poverty, or war (Romans 8:35-39). And whether deserved or unexplained, our sufferings can rightly call forth lament and cries for help.
But when that expected, covenantally promised help is not forthcoming, and when our circumstances are desperate, our hearts understandably cry out for help. When these hopes are not fulfilled, or worse, dashed to the ground, we grieve.
The Psalmist grieves regularly and also trusts in the covenant faithfulness of Yahweh his God, because the covenant God of Israel has not only created the world but is king over all the earth – the nations and their peoples. And because this God is our God, not only may we trust him, but he has promised to rescue us. However, rescue is not what happens in many instances, and that’s why we have books like Job and Lamentations and so many lament psalms in Israel’s hymnal.
Lament Takes Time
So first of all, there is a place for lament. We have to give ourselves space to mourn and grieve over the losses, not only the death of a loved one, but the loss of hope, the loss of a job or a family business, or the sickness and pain of someone we love. And lament cannot be rushed. It needs time to express itself.
Lament Can Be Structured in Worship
In Scripture, however, lament does not end with a wailing despair of chaotic hopelessness. Instead, it is expressed within the framework of worship. Even the book of Lamentations and Psalm 88, for example, which are almost unremitting expressions of grief and pain, were read corporately by the people of God as part of their worship. It is not accidental that the psalms are Hebrew poetry and thus highly structured. The same is even more so for the book of Lamentations. It is structurally and literarily the most tightly wound of all the books of Scripture, using multiple alphabetic acrostics to shape its poetic expressions of lament and keep them from spiraling out of control.
So, when we lament, we need time, but we also need the structure of worship and participation with others who are part of the people of God. In Romans 12:15 Paul says we must “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”
We Do Not End With Lament
Our despair never has the last word. Even in moments of grievous lamentation, the Psalmist trusts in the covenant God of salvation. Psalm 88, which is the most unrelieved expression of lament and grief amongst all the psalms, begins by confessing trust in Yahweh, the God of our salvation.
The cry of Jesus on the cross, quoting Psalm 22:1, does no less. For when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was appealing to the covenant God. Jesus is quoting and referring to the God of Israel, the God of Scripture, the God who has rescued his people in times past, the God referred to through the entirety of Psalm 22, who is the God who is righteous and in the end keeps faith, and saves and rescues his suffering people.
There is a place for lament, and we must let people grieve and take time to grieve. But in the end, through the structures of worship and the fellowship of God’s people, our grief can be part of something new that God does. Our tears can water the ground of despair to make it a garden of hope.
Blog edited by Joannah Buffington