To Cry Is Human
Who taught you to cry? The answer, of course, is “no one.” Although you don’t remember it, the first sound you made when you left the warm and protected home of your mother’s womb was a loud wail.1 A heartfelt protest.
Every human being has the same opening story. Life begins with tears. It’s simply a part of what it means to be human—to cry is human.
But lament is different. The practice of lament—the kind that is biblical, honest, and redemptive—is not as natural for us, because every lament is a prayer. A statement of faith. Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.
To Lament Is Christian
Belief in God’s mercy, redemption, and sovereignty create lament. Without hope in God’s deliverance and the conviction that he is all-powerful, there would be no reason to lament when pain invaded our lives. Todd Billings, in his book Rejoicing in Lament, helps us understand this foundational point: “It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petitions to the Lord. . . . If the psalmists had already decided the verdict—that God is indeed unfaithful—they would not continue to offer their complaint.”2 Therefore, lament is rooted in what we believe. It is a prayer loaded with theology. Christians affirm that the world is broken, God is powerful, and he will be faithful. Therefore, lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.
To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.
A few years ago I was leading a prayer meeting for our church staff. I placed an empty chair in a circle of other chairs. While we were singing, praying, and spontaneously reading Scripture, I invited people to make their way to the middle chair and offer a prayer of lament to the Lord. We’d been studying the subject as a church. I thought it would be good to put this minor-key song into practice. I also knew there was a lot of pain in the room.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, a brave young woman nervously moved to the middle chair. She clutched a small card and sighed. Painful emotions were just under the surface. Her husband, who also served on our staff, quickly joined and knelt beside her. Others soon followed, placing hands on their shoulders—a simple but touching demonstration of entering their grief. With a trembling voice she read her lament:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you withhold the blessing of a child from us? How long will we cry to you—how many more days, months, or years will pass with our arms remaining empty? How much longer will we struggle to rejoice with those who rejoice while we sit weeping? But I have trusted in your steadfast love. My heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me! Thank you, Father!3
In one short prayer she vocalized her deep sorrow while simultaneously reaffirming her trust. She wept and remembered. She sobbed and trusted. She lamented.
After she prayed, another staff member made his way to the same chair. “Here I am again, Lord! I don’t like this chair, but I know I need to come. My wife and I long for another baby to adopt, and we are so tired of waiting and the emotional roller coaster. But we are trusting.”4 By the time the prayer summit was over, four couples mourned empty cribs. Lament provided a language that anchored these grieving couples to what they knew to be true while they waited.
As a follower of Jesus, I have personally walked through my own trauma of unexplainable loss and wrestled with troubling questions. As a pastor, I’ve wept with countless people in some of the darkest moments of life. Every Christian experiences some kind of suffering and hardship. And I’ve seen the difference between those who learn to lament and those who don’t. I’ve observed the way lament provides a critical ballast for the soul. No one seeks out the pain that leads to lament, but when life falls apart, this minor-key song is life-giving.
What Is Lament?
Lament can be defined as a loud cry, a howl, or a passionate expression of grief. However, in the Bible lament is more than sorrow or talking about sadness. It is more than walking through the stages of grief.
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.
Throughout the Scriptures, lament gives voice to the strong emotions that believers feel because of suffering. It wrestles with the struggles that surface. Lament typically asks at least two questions: (1) “Where are you, God?” (2) “If you love me, why is this happening?”5 Sometimes these questions are asked by individuals. At other times they are asked by entire communities. Sometimes laments reflect upon difficult circumstances in general, sometimes because of what others have done, and sometimes because of the sinful choices of God’s people in particular.
You might think lament is the opposite of praise. It isn’t. Instead, lament is a path to praise as we are led through our brokenness and disappointment.6 The space between brokenness and God’s mercy is where this song is sung. Think of lament as the transition between pain and promise. It is the path from heartbreak to hope.
Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.
Lament Is Better Than Silence
To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough questions, is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence. However, I’ve found that many people are afraid of lament. They find it too honest, too open, or too risky. But there’s something far worse: silent despair. Giving God the silent treatment is the ultimate manifestation of unbelief. Despair lives under the hopeless resignation that God doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, and nothing is ever going to change. People who believe this stop praying. They give up.
However, lament directs our emotions by prayerfully vocalizing our hurt, our questions, and even our doubt. Turning to prayer through lament is one of the deepest and most costly demonstrations of belief in God.7 James Montgomery Boice (1938–2000), who pastored the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty-two years, helps us see the spiritual value of praying through our spiritual questions:
It is better to ask them than not to ask them, because asking them sharpens the issue and pushes us toward the right, positive response. Alexander Maclaren writes, “Doubts are better put into plain speech than lying diffused and darkening, like poisonous mists, in [the] heart. A thought, be it good or bad, can be dealt with when it is made articulate.”8
I wonder how many believers stop speaking to God about their pain. Disappointed by unanswered prayers or frustrated by out-of-control circumstances, these people wind up in a spiritual desert unable—or refusing—to talk to God.
This silence is a soul killer.
Maybe you are one of those who’ve given God the silent treatment. Maybe you just don’t know what to say. Perhaps there’s a particular issue or struggle that you just can’t talk to God about. It feels too painful. I hope you’ll be encouraged to start praying again. Or perhaps you have a friend who is really struggling in grief. Maybe this person prays some things that make you uncomfortable—even wince. But before you jump in too quickly and hush his or her prayer, remember that at least your friend is praying. It’s a start.
Prayers of lament take faith.
Lament by Faith
Do you see now how uniquely Christian it is to lament? It takes faith to pray when you are in pain. Belief in God creates challenging questions, and lament provides the opportunity to reorient your hurting heart toward what is true. But in order for that to happen, you have to turn to prayer. The silent treatment must end. Frustration and discouragement might tempt you to stop talking to God.
Lament opens a door and shows you a path toward trust.
Heartfelt cries of lament are often brief or messy. They might feel a bit forced or uncomfortable. But keep talking to God. Don’t allow your fear, your despair, or your track record of silence to cut off the flow of grace. Your pain can be a path toward God if you’ll allow lament to be your new language.
If you don’t have the words, read one of the psalms of lament out loud. Linger over it. Let it open your heart. Let lament do its work in your life. Allow it to lead you to other aspects of this sacred song of sorrow. But whatever you do—don’t stop talking to God. Keep wrestling. Keep struggling. Keep praying.
No one taught you how to cry. Tears are part of what it means to be human. But to lament is Christian. It is a prayer of faith for the journey between a hard life and God’s goodness. We need to learn to lament. Through the tears, the first step is to turn to God in prayer.
- I’m grateful for this concept as found in Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), 19.
- Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015), 58–59.
- From a former staff member of our church who prefers to remain anonymous (2016). Used by permission.
- From a staff member who prefers to remain anonymous (2016). Used by permission.
- Card, Sacred Sorrow, 17.
- Card, Sacred Sorrow, 21.
- Card, Sacred Sorrow, 55.
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 42–106, An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 640–41.
This article is adapted from Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament by Mark Vroegop.
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