“Learning to Lament”

weeping-angel(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on October 14, 2016)

Answer me when I call to you,
my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.


Tremble and do not sin;
when you are on your beds,
search your hearts and be silent.
Offer the sacrifices of the righteous
and trust in the LORD.


Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?”
Let the light of your face shine on us.
Fill my heart with joy
when their grain and new wine abound.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, LORD,
make me dwell in safety.
(Psalm 4, NIV).

There is a spiritual practice that is demonstrated throughout the Bible that goes almost completely unused. This practice is called “lament.”

To lament is to cry out to God. It is to express emotion. It is to complain, to rage, to accuse, to ask, to demand answers. It is to be human. Lament is how we direct our dissatisfaction, our heartbreak, our anger towards God. There is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations. Most of the book called Psalms in the Bible is lament. Often, the prophets are lamenting. And yes, even Jesus laments.

But despite the fact that lamentation is one of the most pervasive spiritual practices in the Bible, we do not do it often or well, particularly in our culture. People tell me that they feel afraid or ashamed to express “negative” emotions towards God. Who am I to question God? Who am I to tell God I am angry or sad? People think that it is a sign of weak faith to be angry or sad at or to question God. I would argue the exact opposite. Furthermore, we live in a culture that has formidable obstacles to lament. Among them are avoidance and denial. When we feel an uncomfortable emotion, we are encouraged to make lemons out of lemonade, to look on the bright side, to be grateful that things aren’t worse, to run as fast as we can from things that make us sad. Oftentimes when I visit terminally ill people in the hospital, the denial and avoidance of impending death is heartbreaking because it causes so much more pain than acceptance of death. And even when the patient has come to grips with her or his mortality, many loving family members claw at anything they can in order to deny or avoid the truth. Of course, while it is always good to have hope, it is never good to deny reality. I have had people who are dying tell me how alone they feel because no one is willing to talk with them about the fact that they are dying.

And besides, we need to lament. This world is lamentable! How long, O God, will the people of this nation be divided along the lines of race, ethnicity and politics? How long, O God, will children die of hunger and thirst, of violence and war in a world that has the power but not the courage to defeat these evils? How long, O God, must we pretend that everything is okay when we are struggling with depression, disease and addiction?

Here’s how I’ve heard lamentation described, which I think gives us all the reason we need to use this spiritual practice: Lament is naming what is wrong or out of place in our lives, so that space can be made for God to provide a remedy. This is why I love to see people protest in our society, and why I cringe to see other people try to shut them down when they disagree. Disagreement is invited and welcome, but do not shut down the lament of your sisters and brothers. Do not deny them that right and that human dignity. God invites and honors our lament and disapproves of our pretentious, judgmental, self-righteousness that cares nothing for those that suffer. Just read the Bible and you will see how God responds faithfully to our needs when we name them. And please remember that we never ever need to feel like we have to protect God from our emotions. It’s okay to be mad at God. God does not require and does not desire us to get ourselves straightened out and under control before we approach God. God honors our tears and our snot and our angry exasperation on our knees when we are broken down and desperate.

Laments in the scriptures almost always end the same way. After expressing our strong emotions and displeasure towards God, we are opened up to experience something else. Once the strong emotions are out of the way, we are able to remember the faithfulness of God. We can remember the times and the places where God showed up, and we can be certain that that God will continue to be faithful. But the path to the sunlit meadow of that assurance goes through the discomfort of the valley of lament. And so I earnestly pray that you have the courage to lament. God will find you there.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, LORD,
make me dwell in safety
(v. 8)

Shalom,

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