The lost art of lament

Sunday 19th May 2013

“Don’t worry, be happy!” croons Bobby McFerrin in his song of the same name, summarising the philosophy of our generation. Even among Christians, our worldview can be much the same and we too pursue Disney’s “happily ever after”.

Driven by the hunt for happiness, we are restricted in our ability to accept or deal with the pain that inevitably arrives in life.  A warped ‘stiff-upper-lip’ philosophy can encourage Christians not to dwell on pain, or the doubt and questioning it often brings.  Yet Biblically, lament has always been a valid part of the Christian life. It’s in the Psalms that we see most clearly the believer’s model for lament.

The Israelites used their psalms (lamenting and otherwise), songs and other scriptures to teach their children about the world and the paradigm of “God-in-control”. Yet Western churches appear to have lost the value of lament. If today’s paradigms are formed by the songs we sing and the scripture we hear, it is perhaps little wonder that so many in our church and the world are struggling with loneliness and depression – there is no space or validation for sadness! As Jinkins explains in his book on the Psalms of Lament “…if we remove lament, we forget why we praise God”. Not only that, but we forget why we need God in the first place – we remove the hope that he offers. And, as ever, that hope is desperately needed.

The Western Church is often isolated from the Church in the rest of the world, so it is easy to forget suffering and the hope humanity is so badly in need of. Ironically, the best response to suffering AND the best way of remembering hope is to mourn before God: participating in His sadness over the world and in the hope He offers for it. As Christian mystic Thomas Merton puts it, “… one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is”. If the Western Church is to know hope it must learn how to dwell in lament again- both for the sake of the rest of the world and for the sake of its own members. A faith that can stand up to the reality of the Fall must be a holistic one, and lament in the psalms encourages the Church towards it.

A quick review of the structure and shape of the Psalter suggests a couple of key points about lament: firstly, lament is not restricted to one particular section or one particular type of psalm. Secondly, there is a visible story arc through the Psalter, moving from lament to rejoicing – this story arc is mirrored in many of the individual psalms as well.

The fact that lament is not isolated to one section of the Psalter is crucial to understanding its purpose. Lament is something that can occur in all situations and is not contradictory to thanksgiving – the two can and should be held together. In today’s world, distress is often seen as best avoided or swiftly resolved. However the Israelites viewed lament through a paradigm of dependency on a God whom they knew and trusted. The Psalter clearly shows that “lamentation was understood as a normal aspect of faith in God, rather than as an aberration” (Jinkins, 1998). Not only is the absence or removal of lament unrealistic from the human perspective, it also rejects the ability of God to cope with imperfection and suffering. It forces those who are lamenting to disconnect aspects of life from God.  Neither individual psalms nor the Psalter as a whole condone this attitude. Rather, as expressed in Ps. 34:18, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”.

A broader reading of the Psalms reveals the overall journey from lament to joy. This is crucial in reminding Christians of the big picture, and the hope that is promised in the long term. Clearly the authors and editors of the Psalter wanted us to see that lament is a valid part of this big picture, and how well it fits into a paradigm where God is completely in control.

The Psalms are also great at lament because they are classified as poetry. This is key, because it is a style that rejects the expectation- strong in today’s culture- that everything must be fact based and logical. Such a technical view of the world does not accommodate a God Who is so far beyond the mere ‘facts’ of the matter.


Poetry, and the Arts in general, are urgently needed within the Western Church to engage with the holistic nature of faith, so much of which has been lost in academia or prosperity gospel, resulting in a warped understanding of Christianity. In many ways the secular world is ahead of the Church in using the arts to engage with suffering; the body of Christ needs an expression of the painful side of faith. The Psalms are at the centre of this need.

So what does one do with all this? Western culture does not readily accept a paradigm that ‘Yahweh reigns’, so it is difficult to absorb these lessons about the validity and nature of lament. If we want to relate to God as the Israelites did, we need to take ‘inhabit’ the Psalms like they did, reading and engaging with them until their language and perception of God becomes our own. This allows us to participate with God as the Psalmists did: by crying out to Him, remembering how He has acted in the past, and being willing to dwell in lament for a time.

Finally, the patterns of the Psalms teach a pattern for life- that overall we turn and return to praise, but lament is an essential part of that process. To weep with God over the broken state of our world is to join Him in His Holy sorrow. To then bring that pain to God is to allow Him to offer us the other side of the picture – the peace that can be carried together with lament, the hope of Christ that sorrow points us towards. The lament psalms themselves are a confirmation of this, because what else is lament, if not another form of praise to a God who hears us and is in control?


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