Hannah Strang, Worship Pastor
About a week ago, a friend texted me. During the exchange, she asked, “How are you guys doing?” I replied with a quick, “We’re doing good!” I even added a smiley face for extra flair. I pressed send without thinking twice and the conversation was over. I wasn’t doing good, though. I had been crying so many tears, overwhelmed by the hatred in the world and the utter brokenness of America’s systems. My 9-month-old had been screaming all day and I had a headache from it. I was trying to work from home between diaper changes and laundry cycles. I was burning up because the A/C in our house wasn’t working right. The fridge was nearly empty and I felt like I didn’t have the mental capacity to make a grocery list. My grandma was being discharged from rehab after a femur fracture and I was worried about her. I was in the middle of hour-long phone calls trying to get my 4-year-old his multi-thousand dollar medication and angry at the corruption of for-profit pharmaceuticals and the rigamarole of what brands insurance would and would not cover. But I didn’t say any of that to my friend. I said, “We’re doing good!” We weren’t. Sure, maybe she wasn’t actually asking for the full story. But I defaulted to cheap small talk. I defaulted to dishonesty because it was more comfortable than addressing the things that were pushing me to the edge.
How often do we do this in prayer?
Our lives can be falling apart, our hearts distraught, our marriages tense, our friendships failing, our minds full of big questions, yet so often we come to God in prayer without being honest about any of it. I’m hardly the first to admit that we have largely lost the art of lament. We can only gain it back through practice — experience after experience after experience. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could reclaim mourning and lament so that future generations could learn from our humble example that pain can be embraced instead of pushed away?
So what is lament? Merriam-Webster defines the verb lament in this way: “to express sorrow, mourning, or regret for often demonstratively.” As a genre of art, it often shows up in music, poetry, or song form. Lament has been present in everything from The Illiad and The Odyssey to Broadway show tunes and blues music. As an action, lament is the verbal and physical wailing, weeping, and crying out of someone in sorrow. In scripture, we see both stories and songs involving lament. It’s no mistake that these painful texts are included in our canon — they give language to the unspeakable. They give voice to the deep caverns of human suffering that bind us all, yet feel so dark and cold that we are often sure we are alone. They remind us that to suffer, to mourn, to weep, is deeply human.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said in Matthew 5:4. The same Jesus who wept when his friend died (John 11:35) and asked — I imagine through tears — for his Father to take the cup of suffering from him if it were at all possible, just before he would be taken by soldiers to die (Luke 22:42). We know that over a third of the Psalms are laments, and that prophets throughout the Old Testament lamented. And of course we have the accounts of Lamentations and Job. But church, we cannot treat lament as a closed chapter. Throughout the gospel accounts, the petitions Jesus receives as Messiah are laments and longings. The epistles contain accounts of suffering and overcoming, never making light of the trials, persecution, and even death sentences facing the people of God. Even through the very last book — Revelation — we see cries of lament (like Rev. 6:10). As long as we live in the “now and not yet,” as long as there is injustice and suffering, we must practice lament.
Okay. Enough talking about what lament is; let’s ask ourselves how to begin practicing it. As a part of our current sermon series on the Beatitudes, A Living Alternative, I would love to see our church step into the practice of lament. This coming Wednesday at 7:30pm, we will gather for a prayer time via Zoom and welcome anyone to read a personal prayer of lament. Maybe the written prayer comes easily to you. But if it doesn’t, I encourage you to follow a simple form often found in the Psalms: 1) the address, 2) the lament, 3) the petition, 4) the thanksgiving.
The laments we find in scripture are addressed directly to God. When we lament, we give ourselves over to complete and total honesty. We speak to a God whose loving posture toward us can easily absorb every ounce of hatred, bitterness, shame, regret, doubt, and fear we inhabit. Lament begins to undo the hardness of our hearts by addressing — not pushing away — the pain we feel. Hear this truth and let it remind you to be fully honest in prayer: we are unable to hurt God.
After we embrace the fact that we can address God boldly and directly, we can get introspective. We must ask ourselves how we truly feel. Many of us have trouble pinpointing our own intense emotions beyond the words “angry” or “sad,” which is why the feeling wheel (see here) was created decades ago by Dr. Gloria Wilcox and is so instrumental in introspection, especially in counseling settings. I highly encourage you to look at or print out the feeling wheel from the link above to find and explore your specific emotions in lament.
In voicing our lament, we start to break ground at the surface of our heartache. What is breaking your heart? What are you mourning? What wounds are you nursing? What is causing you pain? Answer these questions honestly.
As we ask ourselves questions about what is causing us pain and how we feel about it, we dig deeper. We go past the surface of our heartache and start asking questions not to ourselves, but directly to God. Remember: we are unable to hurt God.
The questions of our hearts matter. Why is my pain unending (Jer. 15:18)? How long will the enemy triumph (Psalm 13:2)? Why didn’t I die at birth (Job 3:11)? Why have you forsaken me (Psalm 22/Matt. 27)?
Do these questions make you uncomfortable? So many of us would say yes. Why? Why do the grueling questions of wandering and wondering hearts make us uncomfortable? When we can confront our most painful feelings and fears, and bring them directly to God, we are learning to lament.
In prayers of lament, we ask questions knowing we may not receive answers. In fact, realizing not everything has an easy answer is a huge gift of lament. In acknowledging and embracing our moments of deepest pain, we find ourselves in a holy place. The sacred thread that unites all of humanity will involve a thread of suffering until Christ returns. In mourning, we are unified. Through our tears, we somehow — through the paradox of grace — see more clearly than we would with dry eyes.
So we speak directly to God, we ask heartfelt questions, we embrace our pain, and we accept that there may not be easy answers. Out of this mindset, we follow Philippians 4:6 — “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Because we are children of God, called to come before the Lord with childlike faith, we know we can ask for anything. And because we have accepted the reality that there aren’t always easy answers, that we only “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:11-12), we rest assured that even without easy answers, we have the gift of Emmanuel, God With Us, empathizing and interceding on our behalf. Jesus himself, sitting beside us in our pain.
So what is it you want? This is petition. Several Psalms of lament are imprecatory in nature — meaning they wish to invoke evil on wrongdoers. Will your prayers turn God into a petty henchman that follows your wishes? No. But are you allowed to speak freely to your Father in a cry for help? Absolutely. In a way, it reminds me of my 4-year-old son when he’s upset. He screams terrible things in anger sometimes, but they don’t change my heart toward him. One day he yelled through tears, “I hate you and I want to hit you!” Those are big words for a little boy. But as a loving parent watching her child sort through his big feelings, all I heard was, “I NEED YOU. I need security. I need your love.” Imagine how much greater the love of God is toward you when you feel angry. So speak up and be direct. What is your reaction to your pain? What do you want to do? What do you wish would happen?
Psalms of lament most often end with praise. If you feel like you can only muster one heartfelt sentence, that is more than enough. “I trust in your unfailing love (Psalm 13:5).” “Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:14).” “I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (Psalm 42:11).” Know that it is not hypocritical or trite to praise God in the midst of uncertainty. In fact, lament opens us up to authentic hope. When the frivolity of cheap answers is gone, we no longer have reason to cling to false certitude. In that newly cleared space, we are free to learn to truly hope.