A Subtle Danger
“Positive and encouraging.”
When I tune my radio to the local Christian station, that’s the theme I hear—over and over. It’s not just the station’s motto. The music is upbeat. The hosts are jovial. There’s plenty of laughter. The only “downer” is the news. But then we get back to our regular programming.
Unfortunately, most church services are similar. Step into the majority of Sunday worship gatherings, and you’ll most likely find a steady diet of triumphal songs, hope-filled lyrics, and high-energy musicians. Popular sermons are engaging and peppered with a funny story or two. Positive and encouraging is the new liturgy.
Now I’m not throwing Christian radio and Sunday-morning worship under the bus. I’m not suggesting that our worship should become morbid and negative. There certainly is a place for celebration.
But I believe there’s a subtle danger when we neglect the song of lament.
Reservoir of God’s Grace
My personal journey tuned my heart to this biblical prayer language for people in pain. I soon discovered I wasn’t alone.
After our daughter’s still-birth, I struggled going to church. And I was the pastor. It’s not that people treated me unkindly or rudely. Rather, it seemed I wasn’t on the same page. It felt as if there was no place for my pain. Sundays were filled with warm greetings and chipper small talk. Our congregational singing was upbeat and victory-oriented. Everyone seemed happy. However, my low-grade sadness and daily fight for hope created a minor-key song in my soul. And it felt like I was singing a solo.
When the tone of preaching and worship is only celebratory, we accidentally send a message that real believers don’t struggle.
I began to see lament as a rich but untapped reservoir of God’s grace. I now believe there is a danger in neglecting lament in the church. Let me highlight four:
1. Missing the Balance of the Psalms
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. The Psalms are full of them. Whether the lament is corporate, individual, repentance-oriented, or imprecatory (strongly expressing a desire for justice), you cannot read the Psalms without encountering laments. It’s noteworthy that at least a third of the 150 psalms are laments. Consider this: one out of three psalms in the official songbook of Israel wrestles with pain.
Aren’t the Psalms one of the first places you turn to when you’re in pain? Minor-key songs were vital to God’s people. And if we neglect lament, we miss the wise and comforting balance of the Psalms.
2. Neglecting Hurting People in the Church
Through the years, I began to talk about lament. I incorporated it into funeral services. I taught on it in my sermons. We modeled prayers of lament in worship services. The effect was startling.
Grieving people came out of the shadows. Corporate lament validated their struggle. They expressed gratitude that their language was being spoken. They understood that church was a safe place for questions, struggles, and fears. But even more, lament communicated that church is a place where grief doesn’t make you feel all alone. Lament deeply ministers to hurting people.
3. Communicating a Thin Theology
When the tone of preaching and worship is only celebratory, we accidentally send a message that real believers don’t struggle. Even worse, some people get the impression that sorrow and doubts are only present in weak Christians.
Yet, a third of the Psalms wrestle with troubling circumstances. Lament wonders, out loud, why a good God doesn’t do more. Every believer struggles with that question. Lament-lite churches send a message that it’s not okay to “go there.” Their theology just can’t handle the reality of emotional pain.
4. Failing to Prepare People for Suffering
Brokenness is built into the fabric of our humanity. Hardship, disappointment, and pain will eventually enter a person’s life. And the time to prepare for suffering is before it happens. Lament models what to do with strong and raw emotions. It validates our struggles while pointing us to God.
Lament teaches us how to be real but also how to trust. And if a church neglects lament, people will not be prepared for hardship when (not if) it comes.
There is nothing wrong with being “positive and encouraging.” But if that’s the only tone in church, something’s missing. The balance of the Psalms, the number of hurting people, the depth of theology, and the necessity of preparing people for suffering create a need for a regular diet of lament.
Celebration certainly isn’t wrong, but with a consistent absence of lament, it’s incomplete. The Bible is full of lament for a reason. This minor-key song provides hope, and it creates a pathway to trust.
Lament is how you live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. And it might surprise you how many people are on that journey. While grieving people need positive and encouraging words, they also need to know that the church is a place for questions, fears, and struggles.
Lament is their song, and it would be wise—for all of us—to sing it a little more.
The notion that lament isn't familiar is actually an indictment of the state of the American church.
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No one sets out to learn lament. But once you find it, you're so thankful because there's grace that God can give you when the dark clouds of hardship and pain roll into your life.