Crying is a natural human response. In fact, people enter the world crying. I have been crying for as long as I can remember. Early on, little disruptions in my comfort would lead me to tears. Later, disappointment and frustration and loss lay at the base of my tear-filled complaints. As I parented my children I would often respond to their tears with things like: “It’s all right. Don’t cry.” or “No need for tears, everything is going to be fine.” And typically, everything was fine—the skinned knee healed, a new best friend was made, or a treasured item was found.
Over time we learn to stifle our tears, keep our chins up, and pull ourselves up by our boot straps. However, in this process of maturing we may be neglecting an important part of our relationship with our Heavenly Father.
Throughout the Bible we see God’s people turning to Him in their distress, crying out, mourning, grieving, and wailing—in other words, lamenting. Lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Historically it has been used by God’s people to help them make their way through the pain and suffering in their lives by expressing their complaints and sorrows in a mournful ballad. Their confusion at the juxtaposition of a loving Father God and the reality of their circumstances had brought them to a place of questioning. I can relate to this; maybe you can too.
But a lament is not just a tantrum or tear-filled time of wailing and groaning. Lament is predicated on faith. Hearing and studying the Bible builds our faith and informs our minds with truth concerning God: faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17, ESV).
Without faith in God and the hope of His deliverance, we would have no reason to lament. In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop says, “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” Lament is born in pain and causes us to turn to God with our complaint. Rather than anger that can lead to rage or stoic denial, through lament we humbly, honestly, present our complaint to the Lord. Vroegop gives us a simple outline of the structure of lament:
Turn toward God and address Him.
Bring your complaint to Him.
Make your request.
End with your expression of trust and praise.
David’s response to his sorrow and doubt is expressed throughout the Psalms in lament. Having spent much of his early life in the wilderness, David developed a deep relationship of trust with God:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
—Psalm 22:1-2, ESV
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
—Psalm 63:1, ESV
Seeking God through our struggles is a manifestation of our belief. Sometimes our feelings do not line up with what we think we know about God, resulting in doubt. Expressing doubt might seem wrong, scary, even heretical. Alexander Maclaren, an English minister and contemporary of C.H. Spurgeon says, “Doubts are better put into plain speech than lying, diffused and darkening, like poisonous mists, in the heart.” We should not hesitate to honestly share our hearts with God. He is already there. In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.”
Yes, lament can be messy. But talking to God will allow our pain to become a path toward trusting Him. Genuine lament will lead to a realization of the depth of our sin. Confessing sin and repenting of its place in our lives leads us to worship of our Heavenly Father. In A Sacred Sorrow Michael Card says, “Worship and confession are one holy fabric held together by strands of lament.”
Job reacts in lament to the events of his life: “I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11, ESV).
But lament should never lead to despair. Because we know that God is good and faithful and trustworthy, lament takes us to a place of hope. “Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists.” —Michael Card
After God replies to Job, we see Job arrive at a place of awe-filled reverence and faith in sovereign God: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4, ESV). In the JPS version, Job 42:6: “I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” And finally, in Job 42:3 (ESV) we see Job has exhausted himself and has nothing left: “‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
Lament, fueled by faith that comes from God, can help us work through our hurt to God’s goodness, our brokenness to God’s mercy, and our heartbreak to hope: “Faith is the footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk onto it.” —Nicholas Wolterstorff
During the time we were raising our family, we had a trampoline. It was set up a fair distance from the house in a wide, open piece of our property. At night the dark sky was typically full of stars and we spent time lying on that trampoline, watching for satellites and falling stars.
Other nights I would make a solitary trip out to the trampoline, my steps hastened by my emotions, usually swiping away at tears as I climbed up, lying back, ready to unload. I used this time to verbally express whatever was going on in my heart. Sometimes anger, often frustration, and usually some self-pity made its way out my mouth and up toward my Heavenly Father. It wasn’t pretty; but it was real. And as I recited my list of complaints, things I thought perhaps God had overlooked—like He needed me to point them out to Him—my emotions would calm, my words become fewer, and I would find myself silently staring up at that nighttime sky.
The quiet would not last long. Gradually my thoughts reflected a subtle shift in focus. And while the tears continued to flow, my heart began to beat with faith and my words turned into thankfulness and praise. As I repented of my selfishness and sinfulness, my mind began to reflect on what I knew about God—who He is, what He has done. Hope rose in my soul and made itself known in words glorifying the Lord and recognizing His sovereign grace and abundance of love.
Eventually I rolled off the trampoline, tears drying in my eyes, walking that same path back; but this time steps of truth and trust and faith led me home.
“The tears…streamed down and I let them flow as freely as they would, making of them a pillow for my heart. On them it rested.”
—Saint Augustine, Confessions IX, 12.